I’m writing this from the middle of the Somerset Levels, where the excellent Floodplain Meadows Partnership is having its annual steering group meeting. Needless to say there’s a lot of water around here at the moment.
Floodplain Meadows are some of our most threatened British grasslands and, as well as being very beautiful and full of history, perform many important ecosystem functions and services. Floodplain meadows fall broadly into two types – those with Great Burnet Sanguisorba Officinalis called MG4 in the National Vegetation Classification; and those with Marsh-marigold Caltha palustris known as MG8 in NVC speak. MG4’s are mostly found along the floodplains of big rivers like the Thames or the Severn; MG8’s do occur on floodplains of smaller rivers but also in big wetlands like the Somerset Levels. We’re looking at a wide variety of MG8’s on our visit.
The Floodplain Meadows Partnership was formed around four years ago to provide a focus for research and conservation of these threatened grasslands; being based at the Open University means the Partnership has a very strong focus on research and a number of PhD’s are either completed or in train, to investigate various ecological issues affecting floodplain meadows. The Partnership also carries out detailed survey and monitoring of floodplain meadows and disseminates best practice on the management and restoration of these grasslands to landowners of all kinds, running regular training courses and producing leaflets and other forms of guidance through its excellent website.
I have to say if there was an equivalent to the FMP for every type of threatened grassland in the UK, it would make my job much easier!I cannot praise it highly enough, thanks to the efforts of Professor David Gowing who chairs the partnership and instigated the project, Emma Rothero the outreach co-ordinator and research co-ordinators Hilary Wallace & Irina Tatarenko.
The Somerset Levels have also been transformed over the past 10-15 years or so. Long gone are the days when effigies of NCC staff were burnt by furious farmers. The many individual Internal Drainage Boards that functioned to drain the Levels for agiculture have been merged into three IDBs now working closely with Natural England, RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts who together own many thousands of hectares of land here, to carefully control water levels for the benefit of wildlife as well as agriculture.
We visited South Lake Moor near the River Parrett where we saw how management techniques such as “warping” – flooding an area of meadow with silt-laden water in the winter to provide fertility to the soil, and the re-introduction of “foot-drains”, small shallow surface ditches to control the water levels in the meadows.These help to maintain productivity through hay production, essential if farmers are going to continue to value these meadows as part of their farming systems (beef production). Water level control maintains the plant communities and associated species such as breeding and overwintering waders by providing the best conditions for them. Too much water means meadow is lost to swamp communities dominated by large sedges or grasses.
For the past 25 years the Levels have benefited from an Environmentally Sensitive Area – this paid farmers very well not to fertilise, and not to drain the land. This is coming to an end now, and HLS is only going to cover half the area of land formerly covered by the ESA. There are concerns locally that there will be substantial intensification of grasslands that have been in extensive management for the past 20 years or so. Conversion to arable is less likely though as ploughing oxidises the peat soils and they blow away.
The Biodiversity Minister Richard Benyon recently visited the Levels and saw how effectively the farmers and conservation groups were working together – I hope he will see this as a model for co-operation to encourage elsewhere in the UK.