Early experiments in fen drainage gave Tim Field a good grounding in the management of water meadows – a bonus for waders and grazers
Finding a functioning water meadow in England is rare these days, but good water meadow management is a bonus for waders and grazers, says Tim Field.
For more on farming, read the alternatives to culling bull calves: the white stuff.
WATER MEADOW MANAGEMENT
Blagging my way through clearing to land a place at the University of St Andrews was lucky enough. To then unearth a long-lost cousin on a farm up the road with an insatiable appetite for disruptive conservation was more like a fairytale. Patrick Bowden-Smith and his game-for-anything enthusiasm to marry conservation, farming and ballistics presented an unrivalled playground. By the time my degree was complete he had dammed, dug and scraped sediment traps, watercress beds, reedbeds, ponds and wetlands that extended an already impressive mosaic of farmland habitat. This formed the basis of my dissertation on the ecological impact of varying farming practices.
Aside from researching the intricacies of Bowden-Smith’s watery habitats, St Andrews led to another valuable education in the wet and mud. Training on a sodden rugby field, at dusk, in bracing easterlies, my mind was often elsewhere. As drills were spilled in the halfbacks and skeins of pinkfoots honked overhead, I found camaraderie in a fellow winger who agreed to reconvene on the neighbouring Eden estuary. It was the start of a great sporting friendship with George, son of the renowned sportsman Graham Downing, and by December we were flighting on the Downings’ magnificent wash near Welney on the Ouse system.
The Ouse Washes is a remarkable system. Built in the 17th century to assist fen drainage, it comprises 2,500 hectares of impounded land that flood in the winter and drain in the summer. Interlinking dykes, sluices and drains divide up each wash, which in drier periods support a permanent pasture worthy of a hay cut and grazing. As with many low-intensity grazing systems, this action prevents the succession of willow and other dominant species and sustains a habitat of international importance.
After leaving Bowden-Smith to cut my teeth in consultancy, I found myself drafting Water Level and Catchment Flood Management Plans for the Environment Agency. It honed my appreciation of the role that floodplains play to provide food, flood storage and biodiversity.
Fast forward to 2017 and my first day at Daylesford. During a recce with farm manager Richard Smith, I was peering from a bridge over the River Evenlode onto a low-lying meadow. This rank, horse-sick pasture was scruffy and occasional flooding rendered it useless for cultivation. Our boss wanted it used – for something – with suggestions of biomass planting being bounced around. With JCBs at our disposal I didn’t have to think twice. A site level was hired for the day and after two weeks with a tracked 360 excavator we had bunds, levees, scrapes and wet ditches in place to create our very own water-meadow system.
A RARE SIGHT
A functioning water meadow is a rare sight in England, where rivers and fields have since been dredged and drained to shoot water away from the land as fast as possible. However, relics of carrier, hatch and stop engineering projects dating back as early as the 16th century can be seen in lowland valleys nationwide. The theory of ‘watering’ a meadow at Christmas – ideally around an inch in depth – and draining it in March, would sustain soil temperatures sufficiently to trigger early grass growth. Frost protection, nutrient deposits and oxygenation were added benefits. A further mid-summer watering can irrigate for a second hay cut in drier periods.
The artery of our new water meadow is a raised ‘carrier’, which intercepts a spring-fed land drain. There is no glamorous, oak-shuttered, brick-built hatch in place – a quite simple 9in drain with an elbow bend to control the flow. An elbow turned 90 degrees from horizontal to vertical gives 18in of depth to play with; two such hatches enable us to flood 17 acres in our perfectly contoured meadows.
Overwintering wildfowl and waders arriving in their hundreds within weeks of the excavator tracking from site was enough evidence of the project’s success. It was everything I’d hoped it could be, inspired by Bowden-Smith’s creativity and Welney magnificence.
Catchment Partnerships nationwide are conducting a plethora of schemes to slow the passage of water and utilise areas of undeveloped valley floor for flood storage, and whilst intensive grazing would not be so forgiving on the land, light stocking densities gain a useful bite. The new water meadows chime of Renaissance engineering, the 16th-century Agricultural Revolution and a nostalgic reminder of my university education, somewhat tenuously academic.