“In Shakespeare’s play Henry the Fifth, there is a scene, after the battle of Agincourt, where the captured Duke of Burgundy is lamenting the cost of war. He does this by conjuring up before our eyes a picture of what happens to a meadow when men have gone off to battle and the fields lie neglected with no-one to mow them:
The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover,
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,
losing both beauty and utility.”
This begins the preface written by Professor John Rodwell, to a new handbook called “Floodplain Meadows – Beauty and Utility”.
It seems appropriate, just after the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, to quote the Bard describing a meadow scene with which he would have been familiar. It was a scene which would also have been so much part of his audience’s everyday lives that they would have immediately understood the metaphor Shakespeare was drawing, between a well-managed flood meadow and a prospering nation in peace-time.
I first encountered floodplain meadows, with snake’s-head fritillaries, in 1990 when I started work at the Berkshire Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Naturalist’s Trust, or BBONT as it was then known. I walked around Iffley Meadows, a stone’s throw from Oxford, and marvelled at their beauty.
A year later, I was able to arrange for Plantlife to buy, with money from Timotei shampoo, an extension to Long Herdon Meadows, in the River Ray, part of the upper Thames tributaries. The extension nearly doubled the size of the reserve at the time, from a teeny 12 acres, to around 20. Long Herdon and Grange did not have fritillaries, but did have many other plants typical of floodplain meadows, including the rather lovely great burnet.
It’s extraordinary to see how things have changed in these last 25 years: large areas of damaged or surviving floodplain meadows have been purchased by BBOWT since then; and there was an Upper Thames Tributaries Environmentally Sensitive Area, for 10 years, which encouraged landowners to manage their land less intensively, including recreating wet grasslands. RSPB also acquired a large area at Otmoor (nearby) which they are restoring to wet grassland for waders.
Some of the surviving meadows at Otmoor are a mosaic of flood meadow and drier meadow plant communities.
Floodplain meadows are one of the most threatened wildlife habitats in the UK and are also recognised as being internationally under threat; they are listed on the EU Habitats Directive as requiring protection and while most are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, a small number have been protected as Special Areas of Conservation. There are around 1000ha left, mostly in lowland England. Many had been lost to intensive farming, while others had disappeared as floodplains were worked for gravels. Even protected sites were threatened by changes to their hydrology, which plays a critical role in creating the unique plant and animal communities found in these meadows.
About 10 years ago, David Gowing, Professor of Ecohydrology at the Open University, had the idea of creating a partnership group which would focus on the plight of the Floodplain meadows of Britain, in order to identify what was needed to ensure they had a long term future and to co-ordinate action across a range of organisations to achieve that future.
The Floodplain Meadows Partnership has now been running for nearly 10 years and has just produced the Floodplain Meadows technical handbook. I have been a member of the partnership for most of that time, first representing The Grasslands Trust, and latterly for People Need Nature. I can honestly say that the Floodplain Meadows Partnership is one of the best conservation projects it has been my privilege to have been involved with, over my now 30 years in conservation. Its success is partly down to the excellent team at the Open University, especially Emma Rothero, who keeps everyone focused on working towards the aims of the partnership.
The partnership is special in a number of ways – firstly that it is a genuine partnership, with organisations working together for a common purpose. Secondly because it is run by a University this gives it a great deal of credibility, so its findings and recommendations are more likely to be taken seriously by decision makers. The Partnership has also been able to operate over a relatively long period of time, thanks to funders such as Esmee Fairbairn and John Ellerman Foundation, as well as support from statutory bodies like the Environment Agency and Natural England. And this funding has enabled it to expand its remit beyond the great burnet floodplain meadows, to include a wider range of wet grasslands, previously described as king-cup meadows. It has an excellent website where you can find all sorts of useful information about the meadows.
I would recommend anyone with an interest in managing wet grasslands to get this handbook. In fact, I would recommend anyone with an interest in wildlife habitats to take a look, as the thorough approach that the partnership has taken to investigating floodplain meadows could be applied much more widely.
It is free to download as a pdf here, but why not splash out and buy a hard copy?