BLOG: Talking Floodplain Meadow Restoration With The Experts

We were delighted to welcome so many people to share knowledge and ideas in this live online event on Tuesday 9th November 2021. As well as an impressive panel of guest speakers we were joined by over 50 community members, all with a shared concern to regenerate Bartonsham Meadows as an outstanding natural habitat and thriving local environment. Find out more about our aims for the meadows and how you can become a member of FoBM here

We think the shared community vision for transformation of the land through regenerative management is now clear in its aims, but the question remains: how do we turn it into reality?

Below, we’ll briefly outline what went down at the meeting for those who missed it and/or those who want a re-cap. Please note that we are not attempting a full transcript of all that was said or raised, and that by paraphrasing we may not capture all the nuances of what was expressed. This is an overview. The recording is available on our YouTube channel. We will be running future events so if you want your say do get involved!

Heartfelt thanks go to our guest speakers, who brought such a range of knowledge and experience to help us further understand where we might go from here. They were:

  • Emma Rothero- project manager of the Floodplain Meadows Partnership
  • Caroline Hanks- co-ordinator of Herefordshire Meadows
  • Andrew Nixon- senior conservation manager at Herefordshire Wildlife Trust

Emma Rothero spoke about the place of floodplain meadows in our historical landscape and how our understanding of this is relevant to contemporary restoration projects.

Emma spoke about traditional management of floodplains with agricultural crops. These were species-rich and provided two feed-crops per year. The annual floods provided a natural fertility to the soil, so floodplain land was particularly valuable. Historically there would have been at least one floodplain meadow per parish to ensure the richest crop allocations. To share this richly fertile land fairly, there were complex ownership regulations, with land allocated in strips. Lammas (second leaf growth in Summer) was encouraged and the land was left to over-winter in order to allow a re-balance of nutrients in the soil. Land managers developed an acute understanding of the relationship between hay, water and nutrients, ensuring that nutrients were balanced throughout the cycle. The land manager also needed to be flexible, as much of what happened and when was dependent on unpredictable weather patterns.

Here’s what the hay cycle over a year would have looked like on a historical floodplain meadow site:

April- June- flowers and grasses grow, supporting a diversity of birds and invertebrates.

June-July- hay cut and bales removed. This represents a loss of nutrients in the system.

July-Autumn- grazing by livestock. This also represents a loss of nutrients, which is re-deposited via manure.

Winter- lots of rain. The soil fills with water, the site floods and there is a deposition of silt. This represents a gain of nutrients to the system.

Floodplain meadows were always of great value to the Church, who owned them, and have always contributed to the Church’s wealth. (They still do! See below for further discussion on this). We can see the importance of hay meadows by comparing their extent with population size. As the population increased, so did the extent of hay meadows! So let’s not underrate the value of hay meadows for thriving communities.

The Floodplain Meadows Partnership have developed a toolkit for community groups to use to research their own floodplain meadows.

Emma went on to give a fascinating account of current meadow sites in the UK. The best sites have up to 40 plant species per square metre. These sites can basically be split into the technically termed MG4 and MG8 mesotrophic grassland communities.

MG4 sites, characterized by the presence of great burnet and meadow foxtail, cover an area smaller than Heathrow airport (around 1350 hectares) across the country.

MG8 sites are slightly wetter, and include species such as marsh marigold, carnation sedge and lesser spearwort. These are more widespread but no less rare than MG4 sites.

The benefits of floodplain meadows, both socially and environmentally, are many and varied. Here are some of them:

·  Possible decrease in levels of phosphorus in our river systems by recycling it into a productive crop
·  Even distribution of carbon via grassland root system
·  Natural carbon sequestration
·  Greater botanical diversity, leading to increased ecosystem services
·  Provision of habitat for pollinators, increasing their diversity
·  Cultural and aesthetic benefits as places of learning, knowledge and beauty

Looking in a little more detail at the potential of floodplain meadows to provide carbon storage, Emma spoke about grassland root systems; how they distribute carbon more evenly than woodland root systems. A greater diversity of plants means a greater diversity of root systems and this in turn means that they can lay down carbon in a greater volume of soil. So this is good news! Our meadows can provide deep soil carbon storage. And guess what? The roots grow deeper with each flood! There is some (as yet unpublished) research suggesting that over 100 tonnes of carbon per hectare can be stored in this way.

See below the brilliant poster that Emma used to illustrate the root systems:

Rooting structure of floodplain meadow plants

Emma gave a shout out to other community groups who have successful restoration projects, including:

·  Cricklade Court (Leet)
·  Thames Valley Wildflower Restoration Project (Oxfordshire)
·  Vale Landscape Heritage Trust (Evesham)
·  Hurst Water Meadow Trust (Oxfordshire)

She ended her talk by introducing works from art and craft competition winners Alice Walker and Claire Cornish, and this poignant quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V (Act 5, Scene 2):

The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet, and green clover,
Wanting the scythe, withal uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burrs,
Losing both beauty and utility.

Seems that WS really got it.

Next up was Caroline Hanks, telling us exactly why Herefordshire needs more meadows.


Caroline spoke about the soil and plant diversity in meadows; how the holistic health of grasses, livestock, humans and the wider environment grows from healthy soils.

Herefordshire Meadows has tapped into support from Natural England to convene a discussion group. The group, which currently has 63 members, includes representatives of people farming anything from smallholdings of under one hectare to larger scale farms of over 500 hectares. The group organises events and delivers training days to give advice to meadow owners. This could include information and practical help with:

  • Restoration planning
  • Grant applications
  • Stewardship schemes
  • Working with contractors
  • Brush seed harvesting service (Herefordshire Wildlife Trust also operates one of these)

Caroline brought attention to the fact that the River Wye is in poor condition, with high levels of phosphates. This has led to restrictions on development in North Herefordshire as in other parts of the country. Lancaster University has published research into phosphate build-up in agricultural land, and the good news is that farmers and landowners seem to be responding. Welsh Water and many farmers locally are beginning to adopt and implement the five principles of regenerative agriculture, namely:

  • Maintaining living roots
  • Protecting soil structure
  • Increasing diversity
  • Reintegrative grazing
  • Minimising soil disturbance

The consistent application of these principles is proven to improve water quality, provide natural flood management and to help address the global climate emergency.

As Emma had said, rest periods in the grazing and cutting system really influence the depth of the rooting plants. Caroline had some fascinating statistics to add, highlighting the urgent need for a restoration of managed grasslands:

  • 150% more carbon is stored in soil under grasslands than under forest
  • Diverse grassland can store 70% more carbon than poor grassland
  • Globally, 30% of the world’s carbon stores are in grassland soils

Herefordshire Meadows has charted an increase in restored meadows in the county year on year. These are based on a variety of models, including new projects with commercial sponsorship, developing carbon markets and land management schemes. There are relatively few meadows restored in the middle of the county, so Bartonsham would be a very welcome addition!

Caroline invited us to check out upcoming training days, Herefordshire Meadows’ buddy system for surveys and other tools to help link up with local and national partners working on meadow restoration.

Thanks to Caroline for her encouragement and expert local knowledge. Next up was Andrew Nixon from the Herefordshire Wildlife Trust (HWT).


Andrew gave a brief overview of the role of Wildlife Trusts nationwide, which is to advocate for wildlife, create living landscapes and engage people in nature.

HWT manages 58 sites across Herefordshire. These are of various sizes and habitats, including meadows, woodland, wetlands, orchards and hedgerows. HWT is always looking for ways in which to increase its estate.

Andrew went on to describe in a little more detail the makeup of the Trust’s site at Lugg Meadows. These extend to around 50 hectares, of which HWT own and manage  27 hectares, of which HWT owns and manages a large proportion. Management is through growth of a hay crop, which is cut annually with aftermath grazing, predominantly by cattle. The site is common land for six months of every year. Andrew drew parallels between the Lugg Meadows and Bartonsham - both floodplains with a high footfall, and effectively treated as common land. Threats to the sustainable long-term health of Lugg Meadows as a richly biodiverse grassland site includes pressures from proposals to develop a bypass and on surrounding land from new housing developments.
Good news includes that the Lugg Meadows is home to breeding curlew. They abandoned the upper part of the site due to disturbance but still breed on the lower part which is closed to the public during breeding season. This partial closure of sites for some of the year is something that must be considered in order to encourage a successful increase in diversity of bird and invertebrate species.

In relation to floodplain restoration, Andrew spoke about Lugg Mills (north). HWT has implemented a plan to improve diversity here, for example via green hay strewing. This has had some moderate success, but the problem of high phosphates arriving in silts remains, and they are seeing an increase in problem species such as docks and thistles.

Andrew drew some useful comparisons between Bartonsham and existing other HWT sites, including:
The Sturtts at Letton: A low-lying flatland site that is difficult to drain after surface water flooding (although it is not adjacent to a river).

Bodenham Lakes; an open water lake complex created from a restored gravel extraction site. This includes a deep lake with steep margins, but the most interesting habitats occur in transitional areas; shallow margins and reedbeds.

Oak Tree Farm, a local meadow restoration that included creation of wetland.

Andrew drew attention to the fact that historically there were  traditional orchards at Bartonsham and raised the question as to whether orchards  could be reestablished  as part of a restoration project.

He finished by talking about public engagement. The mission of the Wildlife Trust requires schools and communities to be invested in sites; already Bartonsham has demonstrated a robust and healthy public engagement ethos. Almost all HWT sites are open to the public all year round and rely on a strong team of volunteers for their maintenance.
After our three official speakers, we were very pleased to hear from Matthew Scott, the land agent at Strutt and Parker who manages this site on behalf of  the Church Commissioners. Matthew gave an update on their current plans for Bartonsham Meadows.

Matthew started by clarifying that Bartonsham Meadows is owned by and managed as an investment for the Church of England. He made it clear that investments need to make a return, but it is ‘not just about pounds and pence’, and environmental benefits must be measured as part of its baseline return. Although how exactly this is done is still in discussion, it is a key part of the Church of England’s strategy and Matthew spoke about the Church Commissioner’s ‘increasing focus on the environmental performance of the portfolio.’

Matthew stated that Bartonsham Farm forms an important green space in central Hereford, without which lots of people wouldn’t have access to outdoor green spaces. The Church appreciates that it is a key asset to the people of Hereford. He said that the Commissioners are looking at changing from an arable farming system to some form of floodplain meadow restoration – ‘that’s a plan we’re looking to put together’. He said they are considering how best to do that as they come out of the environmental stewardship scheme (which was in place for the previous tenant farmer). This involves looking at a range of options for future tenancy.

Matthew was keen to express that the Church Commissioners are working closely with FoBM, partners and stakeholders, to:

  • Enable the initial stages of restoration
  • Pin down what a restoration plan might look like
  • Define what can be delivered in terms of community benefits
  • Develop ways to enhance public access
  • Restore and celebrate historic elements such as tree rows and orchards
  • Deliver a holding that provides a lot more for the City than it has done in recent years

Matthew finished his encouraging contribution by promising us with a big smile that we ‘will see major changes over the next few years!’.

So the message from the Church is, watch this space!

With the formal part of the meeting over, the floor was opened for questions. Below is a summary:

Q: How does Bartonsham Meadows compare in terms of biodiversity with other meadows in Herefordshire?

A: Currently, not favourably. It has lost its richness and value through degrading agricultural practices. But it has huge potential to be good! The Wildlife Trust has changed its acquisition policy because they know that you can make a big difference in a short timescale. They would consider it to be a restoration project in terms of increasing biodiversity and demonstrating nature solutions.

from Andrew

Q: Is the high phosphate load in the river Wye likely to hinder restoration of species-rich grassland? Because every time there’s a flood there’s another deposition of silt that is high in phosphorus. Would that make it difficult for a species-rich plant community to be established?

A: In short, no. The high phosphate loading of the river shouldn’t put anyone off attempting the restoration because it’s the loading in the soil that is important and will determine how effective the restoration is. So the key is to find out levels of phosphate in the soil. Only then will we know what the potential is. Even if it’s high, you can do things to reduce it, for example growing short-term crops to start with. Then when it’s permanent you can take multiple hay-cuts to reduce the phosphate levels. So no, this shouldn’t be seen as a problem.

from Emma

Q: There’s a concern about the extensive coverage of thistles and docks. They have been cut back twice and keep growing back. How can you achieve species-rich planting without them always coming back? How do you control them as it’s not advised to plough?

A: It’s not an ideal starting point and certainly presents a challenge. All of these plants have germinated from the seedbank when the site was first converted to arable. The life of a dock seed is viable for a long time. There are various solutions. One is organic, whereby you encourage all of the seeds to germinate. Then you somehow destroy the plants to reduce the population. You can also establish a ‘nurse crop’ and combine it with nutrient stripping by cutting it away several times per year to take away for fodder or to an anaerobic digestor. In that way the weeds are reduced. But as you gradually re-establish grassland, encouraging a range of diversity, things settle down and a new balance is formed. It’s a long process, but it can definitely be reached. There are lots of methods that can be employed.

from Caroline

Q: Land management by the Church Commissioners has lots of objectives. To what extent can single objectives – amongst those that apply nationally – be applied specifically to the restoration of Bartonsham Meadows?

A: Income for the Church is not measured purely economically. There are other considerations, particularly carbon sequestration, in the management plans. Bartonsham Meadows is a special case because it occupies such a central place in the community. Monetary income is important, but can we weigh this with environmental benefits The Church Commissioners have a history of ‘hands-off’ management, i.e. leaving all decisions to the tenants, but they are changing this approach and increasingly working with tenants to ensure environmental returns.

from Matthew

After questions, Andrew Mottram (erstwhile Vicar of the local St. Paul’s Church) was kind enough to share his views on the project. He flagged up that the Church of England has a serious zero carbon target and environmental programme, which both congregations and commissioners have to work to. It will be published next Spring. Church Commissioners are stewards, and they have responsibility as trustees to ensure a return on investment; but also a responsibility to ensure that assets ‘do not suffer from loss, degradation or depreciation’. This is the other side of the Bartonsham Meadows project. It needs to be recognised that the mistake of it going to arable has done a lot of damage. But look at the way that land recovers. The site needs to be given time, and the Church Commissioners need to have a longer-term view, for example 25 years rather than five. Andrew shared the example of the flood plains down the Thames in Oxfordshire that are now beautiful, richly biodiverse grasslands. Andrew had these final words of encouragement to everyone involved with Friends of Bartonsham Meadows: ‘It’s a great project. It’s brilliant that the community of Bartonsham have woken up to this. It could so easily have been lost. So well done to everybody involved’.

Thanks to Andrew, that’s good to hear, and it looks like we’re just getting started!

Gareth gave a low-down on all the new membership options (details on the website) and Ruth closed with big thanks to everyone; speakers, members, committee and public participants.

Don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter and encourage your friends to do the same. You can follow us on Instagram and Facebook and come to our events to participate in the face-to-face FOBM community.

See you soon folks!

Words: Jenny-May While (below)