22 Apr 2008

OU floodplain meadows project to protect and preserve

The Open University is hosting a new partnership project focusing on research and promotion of species-rich floodplain meadows to ensure that this rare and valuable habitat can be protected and restored.

Once common across the floodplains of England and Wales, these meadows have declined to such an extent that there are now less than 1,000 hectares of the classic species-rich floodplain meadow habitat remaining in the whole of the UK (less than the area of one of London’s smallest boroughs, Kensington and Chelsea).

Since the 1950s, as much as 98% of all flower rich meadows have been lost due to urbanisation and changes in farming practice. The few remaining fragments, though protected by national and European law, are at risk from our changing climate.

“Due to their position on floodplains, they are particularly sensitive to changes in rainfall pattern,” explains David Gowing, Professor of Botany at the OU. “And being species-rich, they are sensitive to the increasing burden of nutrients and pollution – from the wider river catchment and the atmosphere.”

Not only valuable assets of our natural and historic heritage, often older than the parish church, the meadows are also home to a staggering variety of densely packed flowers, including the rare Snake’s head fritillary. With as many as 40 plant species in each square metre, they support a wide variety of insects, particularly butterflies, and birds, (many of these meadows are important breeding sites for wading birds such as Curlew and Snipe).

At present, there is little systematic monitoring to help scientists understand the meadows’ response to our changing environment – so there is a risk losing them through inappropriate management.

Snakes Head Fritillay courtesy of Mike Dodd (Open University)

Snakes Head Fritillay courtesy of Mike Dodd (Open University)

Floodplain meadows have a long history of management, having evolved over many hundreds and in some case thousands of years because of traditional agricultural practice. They were highly prized farming systems, their natural fertility maintained through regular winter flooding with little need for extra nutrients. They were annually cut for a valuable hay crop and then animals would be turned out to gain the maximum benefit from the meadows for grazing.

In today’s world, it is recognised that these systems continue to provide important functions. They can help alleviate flooding through winter storage of floodwaters, they still continue to provide a very valuable agricultural crop, they provide a rich source of biodiversity that underpins a wide ranging eco-system (such as pollination plants for bumble bees) and they have an enormous cultural, aesthetic and spiritual value.

Science needs to understand the response of the meadows to a rapidly changing environment, to tell people what we are finding and therefore about the best ways to manage them in order to maintain their current high value, and there is a need to raise awareness of their value and beauty amongst the public. A new project that brings together The Open University, the Environment Agency, Natural England, The Grasslands Trust, the Field Studies Council, The Wildlife Trusts and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, aims to do all this. It is supported by additional funds from the Esmée Fairburn Foundation and the Garfield Weston Foundation, and is hosted by The Open University.

The project will, over the next 10 years, meet these needs by convening a forum of interested parties and work to improve understanding of the current status and future requirements of this very special habitat.

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