Floodplain Meadows Through Time

Hardwick Green Meadows by Wendy Carter

In mid-October we hosted an event to discover more about the history and natural history of floodplain meadows...

Local landowners, farmers, residents and others gathered at Redmarley village hall (a stone’s throw away from Hardwick Green Meadows) to learn about the importance and value of floodplain meadows and discuss the current status of curlew populations.  We were proud to have four excellent speakers who delivered fascinating presentations.

Emma Rothero, Project Manager from the Floodplain Meadows Partnership, got us underway and we discovered that, for centuries, floodplain meadows were the equivalent of the village petrol pump - hay being the petrol, which fed and fueled the animals that provided food and power. She explained how, over time, different land owners would have had different shaped and sized lots of floodplain meadows; as the population grew, each allocated lot became smaller. The statement below, written by landscape historians Brian and Thompson, sums up the huge importance of floodplain meadows economically and culturally, with specific reference to the Lugg Meadows:

Here at Hereford we are not just looking at an interesting view, or an interesting arrangement of plants. We are looking at an increasingly rare example of an area of land whose management helped to hold together the very fabric of a past society. Without the Lugg Meadows of this world there would have been no Hereford Cathedral, no Mappa Mundi – perhaps not even a Hereford itself.

From a Wildlife Trust point of view, we look at the value of these meadows from an ecological and biological standpoint; they can support over 40 different species per square metre. Sadly they are fragmented and in critical decline. Floodplain meadows have many benefits - food for livestock, pollinators and pest control, carbon storage in soils, water supply and filtration, cultural/tourism/recreation/education/knowledge, health and well-being. The current language in government is Natural capital, ie the amount of a natural asset (e.g. soil, air, water etc) and services that arise from the asset (e.g. pollinators/pest control, food etc). 

The Last Call of the Curlew?

It was interesting and encouraging to learn from Mike Smart (Severn Curlew Project Officer on the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust new breeding curlew project) that 60,000 pairs of curlew, a high proportion of the world population, breed in the UK, and about 150,000 breed in northwest Europe and come to winter in the UK. However, curlew numbers are decreasing, mainly because of poor productivity. Curlews are long-lived birds, living up to 30 years, but adults may continue to nest without producing any young. Nesting birds are sensitive to disturbance, especially by dogs, and suffer from predation by foxes, badgers and crows (who no longer have any predators to control their numbers). These factors reduce their productivity and, along with early cutting of hay, are key drivers in the decline of the species.

In 2019 The Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s headstarting project transferred curlew eggs under licence from East Anglian military sites (where they are a nuisance due to the potential of bird-strike) to WWT's Slimbridge site where they are reared under the expertise of the Conservation Breeding Unit. 50 chicks were released in six cohorts at Slimbridge, all colour-ringed to enable individual identification. Post release monitoring has been ongoing since early July and it will be interesting to see where they turn up.

Curlew with coloured rings on legs by Sam Walker

Curlew by Sam Walker

There followed a plea to the audience to help look out for colour-ringed curlews. All the birds are colour-ringed with a yellow ring on the right leg (the “marker”) and a white ring with a number on the left leg. Any sightings should be reported and should include the date, time, location and ring number.

Ian Duncan from the Worcestershire Curlew Group followed this up with his own presentation. In 1990 there were 22 curlew breeding sites recorded in Worcestershire, whereas in 2019 this number was reduced drastically to only four sites, one of which is Longdon Marsh in the vicinity of Hardwick Green Meadows.

Roman camp or modern manure heap?

To round off, we heard from Paul Hudson, Outreach Manager from Worcestershire County Council’s Historic Environment Records Explore the Past team. He talked about the research gathered as part of the desk-based assessment carried out at the start of the Hardwick Green Meadows project, adding his own insights into some of the pitfalls and assumptions one can often make from features found in the landscape – could that shape on a LiDAR map be a Roman camp or is it just a modern manure heap?

Drawing of a curlew with 'pledged' curlew feathers attached

There was an energy and determination from everyone to continue to work together to halt further decline in both curlews and meadows; there are now further plans to discuss with farmers in specific areas how to protect curlews, for example.

At the end, we asked everyone to fill in a 'curlew feather' about what we can all say and do to influence and inspire others to appreciate and protect our remaining floodplain meadows. Some of the ideas were...

  • Good incentives to restore meadows including education about ’better’ meat from sustainable sources
  • Increase awareness of benefits through media / allow public access on open days to local floodplain meadows / start young in schools
  • Lobby our MPs
  • Get out in spring and listen to the song and calls of curlew, then share experience with others
  • Spread the message on social media – pretty pictures help
  • Dogs on leads
  • Changes in hay cutting times and payments to make changes
  • Recruit the farming community as allies, not enemies
  • Walk on dedicated paths in flowering season and appreciate the colours and complexity of the many species of wildflowers found
  • Don’t use pesticides and herbicides
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