Water Meadows

Written by Charlotte Hitchmough.

Cooper's Meadow is very much in the news this week, with the Town Council preparing to debate the future of grazing next Monday.  It seems a good time to take a look at water meadows and what they contribute to maintaining diverse open spaces.

Water meadows, like the one at Cooper’s Meadow in Marlborough, were part of a traditional wetland agricultural system that gently flooded or ‘floated’ the land in early spring to warm the soil, promoting a ‘first bite’ grass for sheep, and again later in the summer to encourage a last flush of growth.  

As well as warming the soil, flooding the meadow allows the ground to absorb the nutrients and silt carried by the river water, which would otherwise contribute to nutrient pollution in the river.

Whilst Cooper’s Meadow is no longer ‘floated’ each year, the remnants of the ditch system are still visible and the lower points stay wetter than the high points, creating a mosaic of habitats.  As part of the 2009 ‘Chalkstream habitat and water meadow restoration project’ these undulations were accentuated by enthusiastic volunteers, allowing traditional wetland plants to be added to the low lying areas.

Within living memory, Cooper’s Meadow was used to overnight sheep on their way to the Marlborough Spring Sheep Market.  Mr Cooper, whose grandfather’s cattle last grazed the meadow in the 1950s, welcomed the Chalkstream restoration project and was there to see the reintroduction of cows to the meadow to start the natural management of this valuable open space.

Historically, water meadows were managed by ‘drowners’ who would maintain the ditches and sluices to control when and how much water ‘floated’ the fields.  The system works particularly well in a chalkstream landscape, where the temperature of water in the river is a constant 10 degrees all year round.

Water meadows support one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems because they are made up of a mixture of wet and dry land.  Like any wetland they are complex habitats which act as giant sponges, soaking up rainfall and slowly releasing it over time.  Wetlands are highly efficient at cleansing water, absorbing chemicals, filtering pollutants and sediments, breaking down suspended solids and neutralising harmful bacteria.

In 2009, Marlborough Town Council took the forward thinking and ambitious step to restore the meadow by introducing grazing and planting wildflowers to replace those that had been lost when the field was unmanaged.  This change in approach was paid for by the Chalkstream habitat and water meadow restoration project, funded by Kennet District Council and a variety of charitable donors. The livestock were owned by ARK who also ran the project.
As part of the project volunteers planted over 1000 plants along the river margins and in the meadow, and half the meadow was re-seeded with a native meadow seed mix. At the end of the first summer the Town Council agreed that the grazing was so popular and successful that they extended the grazed area to include the majority of the meadow.

Over the last five years the Belted Galloway Cattle and Wiltshire Horn Sheep have become a familiar sight on the meadow. They naturally replace the mowing machine and as a result the vegetation has gradually changed from nettles, docks and meadowsweet, to a mixture of finer grasses and herbs including Timothy, sweet vernal-grass, crested dog's-tail, meadow fescue, red clover, sorrel, meadow vetchling, ragged robin, ribwort plantain, meadow buttercup as well as lady’s smock, marsh marigold and bugle.

Marlborough bucked the trend.  Whilst across the country traditional meadows have been ploughed up and replaced with single species, high-yielding grasses, or have been seeded and mown to make uninspiring grass areas, Marlborough has gone back to the traditional ways and created something with a far greater amenity value.  Cooper’s Meadow offers a high diversity of plants and flowers, meaning more nectar, which in turn encourages more insects including butterflies.  These in turn provide food for birds, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles.

Locals and visitors enjoy seeing sheep and cattle so close to a bustling town centre and the livestock have encouraged a socially responsible attitude to litter clearing around the meadow.  Most of all, Cooper’s Meadow has become an important part of the Town again, it is a link between the past and the present, and an open space that supports a diversity of wildlife. It is also a lovely place to visit.

Ungrazed land at Coopers MeadowUngrazed land at Coopers MeadowThe variety of flowers and grasses enjoyed by lambs after four years of the grazing regimeThe variety of flowers and grasses enjoyed by lambs after four years of the grazing regime

The back stream before workThe back stream before workThe back stream after work with new plants providing plenty of habitat for watervoleThe back stream after work with new plants providing plenty of habitat for watervole

Marlborough News Online suggests you let your Town Councillors know if you'd like this award winning project to continue - Click here for their contact details

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