A Wet Meadow

Not a water meadow, just a wet meadow.

(But, I’ll attach the Water Meadow article at the end)

This John’s SECRET MEADOW.

The River Test is one of the most beautiful lowland rivers in the world. It is not pristine because it does have fertilizer run-off and the cleaned effluent from sewerage works added. But it is awsome.

It rises close to the birthplace of Jane Austen in Hampshire; indeed, just to the east of Andover. The water bubbles out of the chalk in hundreds of springs, gathers its forces and heads for England’s south coast – reaching the sea at Southampton.

Annette and I once had a keen fisherman guest from Hungary. We took him to view the river … eventually we forced him back into his transport. He had been totally transfixed by the clear water. He had never imagined you could see into water, and could experiece viewing magnificent brown trout gently fighting the current amid the green sinuous river crowfoot weed. It was a joy to watch the man’s pleasure.

The Secret Meadow has its stream, yet now, with an almost total lack of rain for over a month, it is more like an extended puddle. Still, it has its miniature resident fish.

The stream
Lush grasses, rushes and sedges dominate – a clear sign of nutrient richness and water.

However, this pasture is close to the River Test and the water table is just beneath the surface, so it is a true watery meadow. Over the aeons the river has flooded and added silt, while the non-decay of vegetation has donated humus. It has deep black soil as shown by the mole’s activities. And it is soggy underfoot with wet-loving flora showing. There’s ragged robin, water avens, southern marsh orchids, flag iris, greater bird’s-foot-trefoil, lush grasses, soft rush clusters and tall, triangular-stemmed sedges. Elegant meadow buttercups with their yellow flowers shake in only a gentle breeze for the site is surrounded by ancient, tree-filled hedgerows. In one spot silver weed grows – and that’s a surprise as I thought it loved dry places.

A sad, end of season, ragged robin still struggling to flower

Nearby a similar field has been cut for hay, yet this little remnant is still pristine, virginal. Will it be the same next week? Who can tell. Perhaps cattle will be introduced soon, for something is stopping it revert, through succession, to scrub and eventually woodland. For now it remains a surprise find.

Marsh thistle

For now it is a scene from England in the 1950s – an unsullied spot rich in plants, snails, damsels and their allies. The haunt of water shrews, short-tailed voles and their terrestrial and avian predators.

The field is small in size. That in itself is unusual and during the 1960s hedges were ripped out (with a subsidy from government) to generate larger fields that could cope with the increase in farm machinery dimensions.

Also the Secret Meadow is not being eaten to ground level by horses – the curse of local wet fields. Over grazing and stomping by heavy animals has been the death knell of many flower-rich meadows.

Tell us about your secret meadow.

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 water meadow 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 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.

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 manufactured 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.

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