This week I've thoroughly enjoyed three days of a conference on flood plain meadows, organised by the Floodplain Meadows Partnership. Between work chores I tried to absorb a huge amount of information from farmers, scientists and landscape historians. I couldn't possibly start to summarise them here (have a look at the link for more), but Vicky's graphics are a good start!
Image: Vicky Bowskill
Floodplain meadows are rare things in today's landscape - hugely rarer than they were a thousand years ago. Some at least of the fragments which remain we can with reasonable certainty trace back to Domesday. Their historic and cultural importance is only one reason why the last surviving sites should be much, MUCH better protected.
We are currently busy planting trees over them when we're not spraying them with weedkiller. We should be protecting what are left as we do other Medieval monuments, and restoring many more (this they have in common with other meadows). There have been some great restoration successes over recent years, but we have much more to do.
These are a fascinating type of meadow. Their situation and management mean they're typically home to a unique plant community - one botanists would know as MG4. MG4 features species like Great burnet and Meadow foxtail. Most meadows in England nowadays are MG5 - that is, a type of mesic grassland found on broadly neutral soils on lowland sites. MG4 is now rare, but these meadows were most likely the most common in medieval England as they were so productive.
Photo: Emorsgate Seeds
The different wildflowers and grasses in floodplain meadow aren't just beneficial to biodiversity, particularly invertebrates. Where do I start?! They provide high quality hay and forage for livestock. They create soils which are excellent carbon sinks, quick to create and resilient. This kind of permanent grassland is better able to deal with extremes of wet and heat, and to absorb huge quantities of water. They should be a much more integral part of our natural flood defence and carbon sequestration strategies.
You would think too that stopping fertiliser and slurry run-off from these areas into rivers and streams would be a good idea too, particularly given their current state.
Floodplain meadows should be much more prioritised, period.
Why aren't they? I think the reasons they're not are pretty illustrative of some broader problems which urgently need addressing.
The first issue is that they're complicated. Clearly, like other meadows, the better they are managed the better they will be. Meadows restored or created under agri schemes don't tend to work as there's often no commitment, expertise or money to manage them. They also require work over the long term, with a development horizon which will typically extend far beyond currently available funding packages. Like other meadows, floodplain meadows will give pretty much instant benefit, but will only properly develop over many years, and with local management plans.
This kind of complication means meadows aren't involved in carbon offset schemes. There's no carbon code for them, as each is so individual, and so as it stands they're vulnerable to being overplanted with woodland by overzealous corporates. Ridiculous.
I suspect policy makers find meadows difficult all round. They're under-represented, too, which doesn't help. Compared to woodland, for example, there aren't many NGOs making a noise about them.
Floodplain meadows have benefits across many different areas, which means that government doesn't tend to fully appreciate them. This suspicion wasn't laid to rest at the conference, when a very nice policy adviser at Natural England ended his presentation with a slide purporting to show a flood plain meadow, which was instead a weird splash of non-native annual flowers.
Landowners need more specialists to help them. On a practical level too - and close to my heart - there is a chronic shortage of appropriate seed material to help with creation and restoration.
The fact meadows are managed also counts against them, in the current enthusiasm for rewilding. The word "meadow" originates for the Old English for "to mow". Human intervention is integral to their existence, and particularly so for flood plain meadows, which often relied on careful management of river systems.
The floodplain meadows which are now fields are very productive, for exactly the same reasons why they were so valued in times past. Other than a small and seriously impressive minority, most farmers need to be heavily incentivised to change the way they use these areas. Much more so than currently, and much more than in the proposed framework of the ELM scheme.
Anyway, a huge thank you to the Floodplain Meadows Partnership for organising the conference, and for the food for thought! It's super encouraging that there are people out there fighting the good fight.