With the rise of fertiliser technologies in the 1930s and the intensification of farming practices brought on by post-war food supply anxieties, Britain lost 98% of it’s natural floodplain meadows by the 1980s.
Grasses where grown at high yields for hay production, causing floodplain meadows to lose their unique importance. With the hay used to feed livestock through winter months.
Older meadows support up to 40 different flora and 30 fauna species per metre. Today most only support three or four respectively.
Floodplain Meadows Partnership
To help mitigate some of the issues, a promising Open University led group of 10 organisations known as the Floodplain Meadows Partnership (FMP) has set up several hundred restoration schemes across the country and aims to restore 70,000 hectares across England and Wales.
As explained by Project Director, Professor David Gowling from the Open University, “The Floodplain Meadows Partnership are pooling knowledge and resources to share information and to gather data more systematically. We’ve sustained long-term monitoring at fixed points to really understand what the drivers are for restoration.”
“We have 30 years of data now from which we can share best practices”, he continues. “A lot of work for the Partnership now is providing advice and support for those wishing to restore them.”
Meadow restoration in action
The first tip is to carry out an annual cut. This is crucial to meadow restoration as it diversifies the sward (turf). During eras of wider floodplain coverage this would encourage a range of species to return, but given the current sparsity of sites, this can prove difficult. Instead, seeds can be brought in and planted manually. If possible, this should be followed by the grazing of livestock to spread manure.
Another tip is to cut hay from existing species-rich meadows and spread it the same day (as it rapidly spoils) on receiver sites. This is known as ‘spreading the hay green’. The sward should be harvested at its highest seed count.
It can take several decades to fully restore floodplain meadows and at many sites, the hydrological systems that keep balance have been disrupted by the removal of gravel and sand for urban construction.
Though demand for hay has always existed, Gowling says the increasing efforts to turn towards grass-fed meat as a more sustainable menu option will provide economic incentives for floodplain meadow restoration.
“Things are positive at the moment. There are schemes such as Countryside Stewardship that support farmers to move back into these systems. The drawback is that the farmers sign up for five years with no guarantee of support after,” he says.
However, he adds that a new scheme for government environmental land management to be introduced this year is intended to support floodplain meadow restoration in the long term.
Learning from the past for the future
Doomsday records show meadows were the dominant floodplain land use with the practice underpinning the rural economy. They were so central to supporting settlements that scientists can estimate local population numbers based on surrounding meadow sizes alone. These sites were more expensive than arable land as dependable annual floods brought nutrients. The earliest known evidence was found next to Roman stables.
Floodplain meadows are believed to play a key role in reducing the future flooding effects of climate change. They are far cheaper than the construction of drainage infrastructure. In addition, they are more effective at storing carbon than woodlands at around 200 tonnes per hectare. Making their restoration crucial.
This article orginally appeared on LinkedIn where you can also find the full conversation with Dr David Gowling.
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