Water meadows

Water meadows and watery meadows

David Beeson

Water meadows abound in Hampshire. They used to line the Test, Itchen, Avon rivers and their tributaries and even today their remains can be seen. The first was dug in the 1600s. A few have been resuscitated and are regularly flooded – just south of Salisbury at Britford, the meadows between Salisbury centre and Harnham and just south of Shawford / Twyford in Hampshire. The meadows just south of St Mary Bourne’s viaduct show many of the original features, even if they do not function.

There is a distinct structure to true water meadows; a watery meadow is merely an area of wet or damp pasture without the carriers and hatches needed to drive water meadows.

Sheep farming was extensive in the 1600s. The limiting factor in the size of the flocks being the lack of grazing in the early spring – meaning that many animals had to be killed in the autumn to prevent later starvation of the animals. The solution was to flood the meadows in late winter and early spring with comparatively warm river water that had oozed out of the chalk.

While the air might still be too cold to stimulate grass growth, the river water ensured a luxuriant flush of sheep food. More grass, more sheep.

In 1733 a dry meadow was valued at 20 shillings and acre but water meadows at 40 shillings – a good reflection of their enhanced productivity.

Water meadows were built up of a series of ten-metre wide ridges (sometimes called beds or panes) and furrows. Water from the upstream river is fed, either by the natural gravity generated by the fall in the river or with aid of a weir, towards the meadow system. The flow was controlled by many hatches, with water initially passing from the river into a main carrier channel and eventually into individual ‘downer or float’ channels dug into the top of the ridge. These downers were also blind-ended and the water pressure caused them to overflow and, so, generate a continuous shallow sheet of water flowing over the meadows. Eventually the water dropped into lower blind-ended furrows and was fed back into the river at a slightly lower elevation.

Old, unused sluce.

In order to develop the necessary head of water the carriers often had to be diverted away from the main river some distance upstream. This, and the structure and levelling of the floated meadows, required considerable effort and money. It’s said that constructing a working water meadow took about three years. One suspects that the local millers would have needed talking to very carefuly!

The first watering of the year produced a flush of growth, called the ‘early bite’, which ensured a good supply of herbage when the ewes and lambs moved off the downland, which could then recover before the sheep returned later in the year.

A second flood often occurred in May to stimulate growth for a hay crop taken in July. In autumn a third flooding encouraged grass for the cattle.

Eventually all good things come to an end, and so it was for the flooding of meadows. Cheap imports of lamb, the sale of cheap fertilizers and animal feed, the lack of man-power to keep moving the water from one part of a meadow to another and maintenance costs all contributed to their decline. The cost of maintaining the meadow system outweighed their benefits.

Some water meadows remained functional into the 1960s and a few even into the 1980s. Finally, conservation has stepped in to salvage them and the unique assemblages of flora and fauna that lived there.

Flora and fauna

Wetland plants

Floodplain meadows are beautiful, ancient and fascinating places rich in wildlife and history. Throughout the spring and early summer, they are awash with wildflowers and waving grasses, humming with insects and the birds that depend on them. They provide a vibrant and beautiful spectacle that has now all but disappeared from the UK. The combination of wet meadow, cattle and sheep plus a hay cut produced unique environmental conditions and wildlife. The nibbling of the animals selectively removed some plants while encouraging those that are toxic to sheep or cattle. The hay cut having a somewhat similar effect.

The high plant diversity within floodplain meadows encourages a range of invertebrates, particularly early in the season, and the associated wet channels are also insect-rich habitats.

Unploughed and humus-rich the meadows are an ideal habitat for moles and te frequency of their hills confirms this. With tall vegetation sometimes lining the water channels these areas are also suitable for harvest mice, sort-tailed and water voles.

Bats depend wholly on insects for food, hunting along river corridors and over grassland. A number of generalist bat species are recorded as foraging within this landscape, but Daubenton’s bat is strongly associated with freshwater habitats and the soprano pipistrelle has also been linked with wet meadows.

The high small mammal and amphibian populations draws in predators, so barn owls, herons and weasels are sometimes encountered.

The plants will vary with the nutrient levels in the soil, the frequency of cutting, pH and calcium content. Locally meadows can often be described as ‘kingcup meadows’ with marsh marigolds holding sway in spring. Ragged robin, meadow rue, purple loosestrife and a wide variety of grasses and sedges join them. Marsh orchids and butter burr occur in the best locations.

Some of the few original water meadows are now SSSIs (Including Harnham, Twyford and Britford) and are amazing places. For a treat visit Cricklade North Meadow in Wiltshire during or soon after the snake’s head fritillary bonanza. This site is amazing!

Stockbridge Meadow offers some interesting flora and you’ll encounter other wetlands down the local river valleys.

One interesting side problem that the flooding had was in the build up in liver fluke. This is an internal parasite whose life cycle includes a stage in aquatic snails.

Liver fluke. Perhaps 3cm in length.

Adult liver flukes are greyish in colour and around 3cm in length. An infected liver can contain dozens of the organisms.

Wetting the meadows will have increased the snail population and enhanced the likely hood of the infection of the domesticated livestock.

A wonderful resource: http://www.floodplainmeadows.org.uk

How to age a meadow.

There are three types of common buttercups. This experiment is about the creeping buttercup.

Creeping buttercup

Common name creeping buttercup. Latin name: Ranunculus repens. Has spreading runners. Flowering in spring.

Buttercup species Bulbous Creeping Meadow
Sepal shape / position Bent back against the stem. Not bent back. Lie
against petals.
Not bent back. Lie against petals.
Stem Upright. Some creep over the surface
of the ground.
Leaves Finely cut with pointed tips. Deeply lobed with
rounded tips.
Finely cut with pointed tips.

1.       Take an allowed route around your selected meadow.

2.       After one-minute stop and seek out a flowering creeping buttercup.

3.       Select a single flower and count the number of petals. Record this number.

4.       Walk on and soon stop. Repeat (3).

5.       You need to continue until you have 100 results.

6.       Calculation: Count the number of flowers that had more than five petals. Multiply by seven. The result is the approximate age of the meadow in years.

7.       You need to select your flowers at random. Choosing flowers with more petals will give a wildly inaccurate answer!

How the age testing works:

•        Most creeping buttercup flowers have five petals.

•        Mutations can cause the petal numbers to increase.

•        The older the meadow the more mutations will have occurred.

•        Mutations to petal numbers appear to occur approximately every seven years.

•        So, the more mutations the older the meadow.

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