Needingworth Quarry is one of the largest sand and gravel extraction sites in the UK. Extraction is expected to span over 30 years, during which time 28 million tonnes of sand and gravel will be removed. It covers an area of approximately 975 ha adjacent to the Great Ouse River.

Case study date







Hanson Aggregates

Mineral Planning Authority

Cambridgeshire County Council

Mineral Type

Sand and gravel

Habitat(s) Created


Restoration / Priority Habitats


Partnership Working


Key Issues

Long-term project
Water management

Public Benefits

Priority species
Modular access


Needingworth Quarry is one of the largest sand and gravel extraction sites in the UK. Extraction is expected to span over 30 years, during which time 28 million tonnes of sand and gravel will be removed. It covers an area of approximately 975 ha adjacent to the Great Ouse River.

The project involves the progressive creation of a wetland nature reserve. Restoration will be phased over the extraction period to create Britain’s biggest reedbed (460 ha) along with open water, scrub and rough grassland within a 700 ha nature reserve. The project has been designed to create habitats of high value to wildlife and incorporate public access.

Following each phase of restoration, land will be handed to the RSPB, which will take on the reserve’s management. Ouse Fen nature reserve is created by the Hanson-RSPB wetland project.

Planning History

In the late 1980’s, Needingworth was identified as one of three major potential minerals sites in the County Council’s Minerals Local Plan. Hanson Aggregates submitted an application for planning permission in 1993. At the time, most of the site was anticipated to contain best and most versatile agricultural land (grades 2 and 3a). The submission therefore included an agricultural restoration plan for the site, with a small 50 ha area of wetland.

Subsequent surveys identified that in fact most of the site was a lower grade of agricultural land. Several conservation bodies, including the RSPB, worked together to produce an alternative restoration proposal, since agriculture was no longer the only feasible end-use. There was now the potential to produce a nature conservation site of at least national importance.

Cambridgeshire County Council granted the original application, but with a planning obligation (within a Section 106 agreement) that Hanson Aggregates should produce a feasibility study to further examine the potential for nature conservation restoration at the site. This resulted in a new proposal for the end-use, which met with overwhelming support. A new planning application was submitted in 1999, which included the creation of a 700 ha wetland reserve and 32 km of public access to the site.

The Needingworth scheme has benefited from the close involvement of the Minerals Planning Authority, Cambridgeshire County Council, which performed the dual role of facilitator as well as regulator during the planning process. The project has received a Royal Town Planning Institute National Award For Planning Achievement (2000) for planning and biodiversity, and was nominated for the 2002 European Planning Awards.

Habitat Design

Restoring this site for nature conservation is of particular significance, thanks to its location within the Fens, adjacent to the internationally important Ouse Washes. The Fens would once have supported huge areas of wetland habitat but over 95% of the historic wetland extent has been lost.

The establishment of lowland wet grassland was originally considered as an option. However, the key bird species associated with this open habitat are more prone to disturbance than those of reedbeds and therefore less compatible to the scale of public access and informal recreation deemed desirable in this location.

Restoration at Needingworth quarry offers a unique opportunity to establish a wetland that makes a substantial contribution to UK national targets for reedbeds and bitterns, for which the site could attract 20 or more males. The site will also support characteristic assemblages of plants and animals that were once widespread in the Fens.

Habitat Creation Details

Restoration is undertaken in close co-operation between Hanson and the RSPB. It has been planned using a modular system to be constructed in phases over 30 years. Each modular reedbed block is approximately 10-40 ha divided by low earth rich bunds. Each of these blocks will contain open water - small meres - linked by ditches and channels, designed to maximise the length of the reed and water edge. A balance will be drawn between the need for both wet and dry reed, open water, fen and scrub.  Efficient water level management will be possible by constructing a peripheral ditch and sluice system around the entire site. The restoration process is summarised below:

A large-scale earth moving operation first establishes ‘islands’ of reedbed among wetter meres and channels.

  • This is followed by a second stage of earthworks to add smaller scale landscape features and to install water control structures.
  • Water levels are the raised for a year to flood ruderal vegetation after which reed planting takes place - usually using reed plugs.
  • Reeds are protected from wildfowl and livestock using temporary post and wire, mesh and electric fencing.
  • Subsequently water levels managed as ‘splashy water’ to optimise reed establishment and invading willow scrub is carefully controlled.

Long-term management

Established reedbeds are likely to be cut to reduce litter build-up, maintain open structure, reed dominance and increase beneficial edge effects. Commercial reed cutting enterprises are expected to be involved along with specialist reed cutting machinery. Other management techniques likely to be employed are cattle/pony grazing on long rotations to return dewatered reedbed cells back to fen. Rewetting these areas will allow reed to re-establish. Invading willow scrub will be controlled as appropriate with areas of isolated thorn and willow scrub developed within the dry grasslands.

Some of the key targets in the current management plan are outlined below:

  • Design targets are for overall totals of c.60% wet reed, 20-30% open water and fen, 5-15% dryer reed and 5-10% scrub.
  • An interface of reed and water of approximately 400m/ha.
  • Spring water levels of between 20 – 100cm above bed level with natural summer drawdown.
  • Fish biomass (<300g) of greater than 10kg/ha.
  • Up to 15% dry grassland margins rotationally ungrazed or cut for 2-3 years.

Public Benefits

The Hanson-RSPB wetland project has been developed with the close involvement of local communities. Opinions were sought on the plans and local people planted the first reeds. Overall, the nature reserve will offer quiet enjoyment and the experience of a wild and open landscape. Access has been progressively opened to local people through the development of the public rights of way network of footpaths and bridleways. Visitor access to the public was formally opened in 2012. In time Ouse Fen will become a major resource for informal recreation for local people and visitors alike in the fast growing Cambridge Growth Area. The new nature reserve will link neighbouring RSPB reserves at Fen Drayton Lakes (another former aggregate extraction site) and the Ouse Washes and contribute to a near continuous wetland of some 2,500 hectares – the Great Ouse Wetland.

Ouse Fen will also be promoted for use as a demonstration site and an example of how carefully planned mineral restoration provides substantial benefits for biodiversity and people. Interpretation will explore these themes and the site’s rich archaeological heritage.


A programme of research, survey and monitoring enables the success of the habitat creation to be assessed. This includes:

  • Annual monitoring of key bird species including all red/amber birds of conservation concern.
  • Monitoring of all other key species.
  • Monthly WeBS counts of wintering waterfowl.
  • Surveys of mammals, fish, aquatic invertebrates and plants.
  • Monitoring of the water level and quality in each module.

Progress so far

Since the first period of restoration was completed in 2004, huge progress has been made. By 2011 reedbed restoration had been completed across six meres and 85 ha with 130,000 reeds planted. In 2016 land transferred to the RSPB increased Ouse Fen to 218 hectares, with a further 80 hectares expected to be transferred in 2020. As the nature reserve has gradually developed, large numbers of birds have become established including ducks, grebes and swans as well as widespread reedbed passerines such as reed warblers, sedge warblers and reed buntings. Water voles and otters are now present, as well as brown hare in the surrounding grassland, and 22 species of dragonfly including the rare Norfolk Hawker.

Significantly, the key species around which the project was conceived have all colonised and formed significant populations. Peak numbers of six marsh harrier nests, 24 nesting pairs of bearded tit and 10 booming male bitterns have been recorded. Also recorded on site have been European Crane plus rare plants such as the Nodding Bur-marigold.

The information set out within this advisory sheet in no way constitutes legal or regulatory advice and is based on circumstances and facts as they existed at the time Nature After Minerals compiled this document. Should there be a change in circumstances or facts, then this may adversely affect any  recommendations, opinions or findings contained within this document