The Rivers Trust explains it well…. http://www.theriverstrust.org/newsletter/winter_06/issue_10/newsletter.html
Water meadows are quite distinct from other forms of wet grassland. Engineered topography, weirs, channels, sluices and sloping ‘panes’ of grass enabled a management regime that maximised productivity. The operation of water meadows required considerable skill from the ‘drowners’ who used to tend them and control the flows, sequentially flooding (or ‘drowning’) and draining the meadows throughout the year to maximise early growth of grass and the production of hay and summer grazing. The control of flows harnessed the warmth and nutrient-bearing silt from river water, using it to irrigate and control some weeds. This method of controlled water flow, critically maintaining a thin film of moving and oxygenated water that is not allowed to stand and waterlog the soil, distinguishes water meadows from other forms of wet grassland.
Water meadows were very much a feature of agriculture from the 16th to early 19th century. They helped overcome the gap during March/April when livestock feed was scarce; winter feed used up and new grass yet to emerge. The grass produced by water meadows was rich in nutrients and grew earlier so allowing farmers to keep their cattle fed all year round. Changes in agricultural methods, mechanisation and the use of chemicals gradually made the labour intensive practice of maintaining water meadows largely redundant.
However, water meadows were not just there to feed cattle! They created a vibrant and diverse wetland habitat and were home to many important wildlife species.
Water Meadows as important ecosystems
Since 2005 with the help of changes to the Common Agricultural Policy- British farmers have been given subsidies to help restore many of Britain’s’ important water meadows, but there is still much work to be done in this area.
Since the Second World War, more than one million hectares of water meadow have been lost – ploughed for grain and potatoes, or taken for house-building – with devastating consequences for plant and wildlife…….
In Suffolk, where Constable painted several of his most famous rural scenes, there are only 250 hectares of genuine water meadow left, a fraction of the original area.
Water meadows are micro ecosystems, teeming with insect life, plant life and related mammals and birds. Conservationists are concerned at the drop in numbers of many species that favour water meadow habitats. Among the birds that enjoy feeding on water meadow insects are Sedge Warbler, Reed Bunting and Whitethroat. In late summer there are flocks of finches and other seed-eating birds on the seed heads of thistle and teasel. Other wildlife you might see and experience include birds such as Kestrels, Woodpeckers and Sparrowhawks.
Of particular interest in Bury St Edmunds’ water meadows is the kingfisher- an extraordinary bird that is an absolute delight to observe!
We will be writing further posts on the insects and flowers and grasses of Bury water meadows.
Water Meadows Wildlife
The Suffolk Wildlife Trust has a specific project aimed at preserving water wildlife in the region. The Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Water for Wildlife initiative has had much success in this area but there is still an enormous amount of work to be done
Once a familiar sighting in Suffolk, the charismatic water vole has suffered the most rapid and catastrophic decline of any British mammal due to habitat loss and predation by the non-native American mink.
Water Meadows Otters
Otters are a protected species and somewhat shy! You will have to be very patient and very quiet if you want to spot one on the riverbanks of Bury water meadows. However, the good news is that the once threatened species is making a comeback thanks to the efforts of many conservation projects. The otter suffered terribly with the introduction of pesticides and other toxic chemicals in the 1950’s and 60’s and their breeding dropped significantly. Major improvements in water quality and habitat have meant that once again, the otter is growing in numbers, although it is still nowhere near the level of pre-1950.
Suffolk Wildlife Trust (SWT) bosses have said there has been an increase of positive sightings in the region, while mammal ecologist Paul Chanin said animal numbers have been going up steadily for 30 years.
If you want to know more and are interested in helping the Water for Wildlife project- read about what is happening and how you can help HERE
Watch out for further blog posts on the wildlife, flora and fauna of these important habitats.