A recent All Party Parliamentary Group for Nature meeting in Westminster featured presentations from the Floodplain Meadows Partnership on Delivering Resilient Floodplains with a focus on restoring them for nature and for storing carbon (cue COP27 and climate change matters!). One has to face rather dry and uninspiring fare when trying to change the current trend of nature depletion in our nation. I try to bring a little salt and light into these rooms, offering an alternative to the idea that nature must justify its worth in terms of ‘ecosystem services’ or else be expended for profit.
The meadows lining our rivers were historically managed for hay then grazed which led to an abundance of flower-rich glory above ground hiding a less glamorous below ground capacity for water and carbon storage. We are now coming to appreciate the importance of a legacy now reduced by 99% through neglect, quarrying, pollution, building and much else. Only 3000 hectares (7400 acres) remain in good condition. The brutal separation of rivers from their floodplains in the name of flood alleviation is another mistake born of a misconception of what a river is and how rivers behave. Leaving rivers to wander in their floodplains as discrete systems is the best form of flood defence as well as providing magical places to experience nature and receive a myriad other spiritual and health benefits.
As I sat in the meeting, I pondered that Foxearth Meadows could possibly be returned to join the flagship flower meadows being described but wondered if it should. I spoke to Emma Rothero, FMP Project Manager, about the history, hydrology, soils, nutrient status and vegetation at our small site and voiced my reservations. I always carry a sentence in my head by Oliver Rackham: “Professional conservationists look for how a wood resembles other woods, rather than what makes it special”1 which I apply to whichever place I am studying, in this case, a much battered little floodplain on the River Stour. Many years of ‘neglect’ have forged a unique character not easily classified but certainly special. Emma helped me out: “How you manage the site depends on your priorities.” So, what makes Foxearth Meadows special and therefore must inform my priorities rather than a vague yearning to re-create a uniform classic flowery field.
It is a tapestry. The patterns of vegetation are shifting, with abrupt changes from one dominant stand to the next (Fig.1- above) and this brings an associated fauna. I have been astonished at the number of Harvest Mouse nests (Fig.2- below) we are finding halfway through a mild November. If I mowed the whole meadow as in former haymaking times where would they live and breed? I suspect they are much reduced in the intensive farmland roundabout.
Other aspects of the rich tapestry are: the large ponds dug for gravel extraction (and day fishing!) in the 1980s – attracting our 23 species of Dragonflies and Damselflies; the unusual herb rich plant community between the two ponds – a brilliant colour palette in late Summer and home to our Grass Snake and Common Lizard (Fig.3 – below) populations; the Island Pond reedbed and Willow and Blackthorn scrub fringing the western side – alive with the songs of warblers in Spring.
Whilst there are areas of grassland by the river that are good candidates for restoration to increase plant species, I know that I cannot sacrifice the unique pattern of other habitats woven into the landscape that give opportunity to so many of our threatened species. Delving into what makes Foxearth Meadows such a special place is an exciting, never-ending task. The tapestry still has many secrets to be revealed. Do come along and take a look yourself, perhaps over the Christmas holidays, and please share your sightings, give your thoughts and suggestions, and feel free to ask me anything about the meadow and how we manage it.
Fig. 1. Abrupt vegetation changes at Foxearth Meadows. Stands of Reed Canary-grass (left), Great Willowherb (right) and Pond Sedge (front) meet. (Photo: Mark Prina)
Fig. 2. Harvest Mice nest. Stands of tall vegetation are needed for breeding. (Photo: Mark Prina)
Fig. 3. Common Lizard (Photo: Trevor Gooding)
17 November 2022
1 Rackham, Oliver (2006) Woodlands. William Collins. London