Regenerating the wild heart of Hereford

Ruth Westoby, founder member and Chair of Friends of Bartonsham Meadows (FOBM), and Anna Gundrey, ecologist and founder member of FOBM, spoke at Hereford Cathedral in March 2024.

Thanks to Jennifer Dumbelton, Hereford Cathedral Librarian, for the invitation to speak. We presented the history of the Meadows and the ecological benefits of traditionally-managed floodplains – and the success of FOBM’s campaign to secure the longterm future of the Meadows through it becoming a Herefordshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve. Here’s the text of our presentation.

The Friends of Bartonsham Meadows (FOBM) are a community group formed in 2000 to campaign for the longterm ecologically sensitive management of the Meadows.

This slide shows the location of Bartonsham Meadows, close to the heart of the city of Hereford. Bartonsham is a 100-acre site nestled in a meander of the Wye that it shares with the municipal treatment works.

The Meadows are a ten-minute walk from the centre of Hereford – in fact you can walk from the Cathedral through the Castle Green and follow the river to come to the Meadows.

The Meadows are also connected to the south of the river by the Victoria Bridge and the Canary Bridge.

This is a 1779 map by Robert Whitworth and is a survey of the Wye to improve the navigation by adding pound locks, note the red channel. The scheme was never implemented.

Ruth shared with a brief history of the Meadows – and acknowledged her debt in putting this together to the historians Bill Laws, David Whitehead and David Lovelace as well as other researchers for the Bartonsham History Group.

As well as being a vital feature in the community life of Hereford, the Meadows has a long association with the church.

The Meadows may be connected to the pre-Cathedral chapel of St Guthlacs on Castle Green – according to David Whitehead. Some say the outline of St Guthlac’s is still visible in dry years. Since then Bartonsham has provided an income for the clergy. By the mid-13th century Bartonsham was a prebendary estate of Hereford Cathedral. The prebendal seat can be seen in the Cathedral choir stalls.

The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names (2004) states that ‘barton’ or in Old English beretun or baertun was ‘a corn farm, an outlying grange, a demesne farm, especially one retained for the lord’s use and not let to tenants.’ It also adds that the name implies a settlement which was originally a component of a larger unit. After 1066 this appears to be one of the many estates around the city of Hereford collectively forming the patrimony of the church.

In 1866 Rev John Hopton, vicar of Canon Frome and Prebendary of Bartonsham, signed the prebendal estate over to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners (now the  Church Commissioners) seemingly to fund the new parish school, church and vicarage of St James. The church and school still serve the community, though the vicarage, despite receiving one million in public funds for refurbishment, has been bought by the evangelical Christian group Vennture.

The Church Commissioners benefited financially from the transatlantic slave trade, as it is partially formed from the Queen Anne’s Bounty. According to the Church Commissioners own 2022 report the Queen Anne’s Bounty had invested significant sums in the South Sea Company, which transported 34,000 slaves to the Spanish Americas in the 18th century, and had received benefactions from people with links to slavery, including Edward Colston. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, apologised for the links with slavery identified in the report. In January 2023 the Church Commissioners announced that they were setting up a fund of £100 million to be spent over the next nine years on addressing historic links with slavery, a figure increased to £1bn in March 2024 following a report commissioned by the Church Commissioners. The Matthews family took a three-generation tenancy after WW1. And the Church Commissioners continues to own the Meadows to this day.

Along the north side of the Meadows runs the Row Ditch. This first appears in city records in a mid-12th century document on general inquisitions. These judicial assemblies, also known as moot or meeting points, were held at various locations around the city including the King’s Acre, and ‘at a tree nigh to the Rough- ditch’ at Bartonsham. Local juries were empanelled to meet at such sites to rule on disputes and transgressions.

The ‘Rough Ditch’ may have been associated with the Hereford Mills, but it was also closely associated with the entrenchments of the Scottish army which laid siege to the Royalist-held city during the Civil War. It has statutory protection as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The Row Ditch has in fact now been filled in so is not particular impressive as a historical feature. The Row Ditch marks the extent of the city’s growth by the mid-1800s as the floodplain is not suitable for housing – through an area was taken out of it by the Victorians for the Treatment Works.

Other historical moments on the Meadows include the Scots camping out there as they laid siege to Hereford in the 1650s. According to Miles Hill, writing in 1650, they made life miserable for the locals: ‘Reader, if thy hadst been present to have seen the cryes these poor people made, if thy heart had not been hard, it would have melted into tears with them.’ Finally, in 1913 the pilot Bentfield Hucks his 80 horsepower Gnome Bleriot on the Meadows and offered rides to the public – at £5 flight tickets were expensive (even the generous railway wages paid around only £2.10s a week).

There is a close association between the Meadows, the Church and the community – it has a long history and is still very relevant today.

We think it worth considering the depth and nuances of this relationship, particularly in the face of changing land use and the global ecological crisis. We have found the local church to be sympathetic and helpful to our project – in fact we met with the Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Rev Richard Jackson, in the early stages of our campaign and he fully supported out work. The local church of St James and the vicar Andy Morgan have been very supportive. The former vicar of All Saints, Andrew Mottram was key in liaising with the Church Commissioners on their environmental commitments. Yet there is something of a fissure between the church in general and the Church Commissioners.

In fact, we can draw a broader point about the relationship between Christianity and the environment as set out by the pioneering American scholar of history in 1967. Lynn White argued ‘that our model of the world, our theology or cosmology, sets the stage for how we treat the matter of our world’ (Biernacki 2023:7). He argued that our daily actions are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress, and that Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen. He suggests that Christianity not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends. He ssaw the ecological crisis as worsening until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man. However, he thought the solution to the ecological crisis should also be partly religious, and proposed St Francis of Assis as the patron saint of ecologists. White wrote, ‘Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists.’

I think this wider perspective is worth bearing in mind in relation to this very local context of land, church and community.

Back to the the history of the meadows. We know that the Meadows have been managed as dairy pasture for at least 100 years – and prior to this the earliest map we have is this Tithe Map dating from 1847. It shows that at this time the meadows were subdivided into fields and managed as meadows and or pasture. The field pattern is  similar to what is present today, but we have lost some of those boundaries. The central area is orchard – and older residents can still remember these from their childhood. An area of withybeds is shown were the sewage works is now located – these were willow beds grown to supply basket makers for the market. 

The first edition Ordnance Survey map dating from 1880, [next slide] also shows two ponds which are also remembered by local residents. The imprint of the southern pond can still be seen on aerial photos. The one shown here is a GoogleEarth image dating from 2018.

The Meadows have a long history of public access – with the long-established public footpath running from the green street entrance to the meadows and the canary bridge, and the footpath along the river.  There is also a history of swimming in the river – there was a public bathing station just below the farm, known as the ‘Bassom’ and maintained by the Town Council.  This was where most people learned to swim. In May 1915 with the country at war, the Hereford Times reported that, with the river in ‘a splendid condition, being both fresh and of a comfortable temperature, the advent of summer weather saw bathing commenced in the Wye at the Bartonsham Bathing Station, maintained by the Town Council

Many of you will know and maybe swam from the river beach where the Bassom once was. 

The tipping point for our campaign was the historically high flood of 2019/2020.

In early  2019, an area on the west side of the farm close to the river was let to an arable contractor who grew maize. The dairy cattle remained on the reduced acreage of pasture. There were historically high floods that winter which came up to the bottom of the gardens of the houses on Park Street. The cows were removed from the site and in early February 2020 much of the rest of it was ploughed and sown for cereal crops. By mid-February 2020 the land was again inundated, much of it remaining under water for two weeks. Great quantities of the exposed and vulnerable soil was washed into the Wye along with slurry from the cattle yards. The crop that made it through the floods was flattened in a spring storm and never taken in.

We knew that the Matthew’s tenancy was drawing to a close and felt strongly that arable was not an appropriate land use for such a site. And so we set up a grass roots community campaign – Friends of Bartonsham Meadows. 

So what’s so good about floodplain meadows? We have listed here some of the many benefits that a sustainable managed floodplain meadow can deliver – biodiversity, flood alleviation, nutrient capture, carbon sequestration, wellbeing and eduction. We spoke in detail about each of these after explaining a bit more about the habitat itself.

Traditional haymeadows are grasslands that are shut up for hay and allowed to grow without grazing. They are mown in summer and then the ‘aftermath’ is grazed in late summer/early autumn. They are typically rich in wild flowers, because plants can set seed before being mown, and then subsequent mowing and trampling by livestock creates openings in the sward where germination can occur. They can broadly be divided topographically into floodplain meadows and ‘dry’ or ‘upland’ meadows. Floodplain meadows as the name suggests were typically found along the floodplains of larger rivers. They were particularly prized because they occurred on the deep, rich soil, where fertility was regularly replenished by winter flooding. They were flat and easily managed and growth through dry periods could be maintained by the high water tables of the alluvial plain and deep root systems of the constituent plants. So they produced large quantities of high-quality hay. 

Lugg Meadows is a typical floodplain meadow, and is one of the largest traditionally managed meadows still in existence in Britain. It is likely that Bartonsham was originally managed in this way.

It is estimated that by the mid-1980s, 97% of meadows that were present in the 1930s had been lost. There are thought to be between 53, 000 – 88,000 hectares of semi- natural grassland remaining in the lowlands of England and Wales. Of this total only 500 – 1000 ha is floodplain grassland (Blackstock et al. 1999).

At Bartonsham Meadows we have 40 hectares – so we are aspiring to restore potentially a further 4 – 8% of the entire floodplain meadow resource of England and Wales.

As well as their intrinsic value as a distinctive habitat, floodplain meadows can deliver many additional benefits as we have listed. The first of these is biodiversity. The traditional meadow habitat rich is plant species , and floodplains can be particularly so.

There is a characteristic plant community found on floodplain meadows, which is known to botanists as ‘MG4 Alopecurus pratensis – Sanguisorba officinalis grassland’. Botanically, this type of vegetation is one of the most species-rich grassland communities found in the UK. The Floodplain Meadows Partnership has recorded quadrats with up to 43 species per m2 in a species-rich meadow, and 85 meadow herb species were counted at Lugg meadows (Brian & Thompson, 2002) – so that’s just the flowers. If you include grasses, sedges, rushes and hedgerow species the total would be higher still. The plants present are similar to those of the classic ‘dry’ hay meadow, but with a tall vigorous sward with bulky herbaceous species such as meadowsweet, knapweed and devil’s-bit scabious and with particular characteristic species such as great burnet, meadow vetchling, meadow foxtail and meadow buttercup. There are two species of particular note that occasionally occur on floodplain meadows. These are the nationally scarce narrow leaved water dropwort, and snakeshead fritillary, both of which occur on Lugg Meadow. 

However, there is more to a meadow than just the grassland – there are also hedgerows, patches of scrub, damp hollows, river margins and so on. All these smaller habitats have their own species assemblage and add to the huge plant diversity of a floodplain landscape. And that’s what we aspire to recreate at Bartonsham – a habitat that is both species-rich and structurally diverse.

Floodplain meadows are also a valuable habitat for a huge array of faunal species. The species-rich sward of a typical floodplain meadow, and the fact that it is left unmown for the majority of the growing season means that it offers a significant seasonal resource of pollen and nectar for a large number of invertebrate species. Bumblebees, sawflies and hoverflies can be abundant. And where there’s abundant prey species, the predators will follow – including ground beetles and spiders.  

Higher up the food chain, a grassland rich in invertebrates will benefit insectivores such as bats. The River Wye is an important navigational route and foraging resource for bats, and the development of species-rich grassland, along with associated habitats such as hedgerows and trees would expand the foraging range of this protected group of species. 

Floodplain meadows can also provide a rich habitat for a range of birds throughout the year. During the spring and summer, undisturbed meadows can offer habitats for ground-nesting species such as curlew and skylark.  At other times of the year, especially during and after periodic flooding, they can provide winter feeding grounds for a wide range of wildfowl and waders. Floodplain meadows also provide year-round foraging for songbirds that rely on seeds and invertebrates, and feeding and roosting habitat for wintering species such as starling, redwing and fieldfare.

A grassland rich in invertebrates, particularly if it forms part of a diverse assemblage of habitats that are retained after the haycut (such as hedgerows or stands of unmown vegetation) can support small mammals such as field vole and common shrew and the more common reptile species. 

A bit more on birds before we go onto the other benefits of meadows. The Herefordshire Ornithological Club have been carrying out monthly bird surveys over the last three years – basically walking a circuit of the Meadows and recording all birds that are heard or seen. Last year, a total of 71 different species of birds were recorded, with a peak count of 36 species recorded during a single survey. As the vegetation has been left to develop, it has allowed voles to colonise, which has attracted predatory birds. A regular sight the winter before last was a pair of barn owls quartering the meadows at dusk. And a hunting kestrel is now a daily sight on the meadows.

Other exciting visitors have been skylarks and yellowhammers – both species that are included on the RSPBs red list of birds of conservation concern. For those who would like to read more about the birds of Bartonsham Meadows – FoBM have an article in the current Hereford Ornithological Society newsletter, and another longer piece planned for their annual report.

Moving on to other benefits. Natural floodplains, and in particular floodplain meadows can play an important role in flood alleviation. They can help to reduce flood peaks to towns and cities located downstream by absorbing and storing water that would otherwise flood low-lying areas. Meadows work a bit like a giant sponge – they have the capacity to store vast quantities of flood water and release it slowly over time, lowering the peak water level. In contrast, modern flood defences use embankments to constrain floodwater to a narrow channel. This simply pushes the problem downstream, until floodwaters reach levels that can overwhelm defences – with sometimes catastrophic results.

The reason why meadows are so effective at soaking up sudden influxes of water is because traditional meadow systems produce good, deep open-structured soil. This increases their capacity to absorb and store water. By comparison, a regularly ploughed arable field, for example, leaves the soils more compact, reducing their ability to absorb water. Meadows represent an agricultural land use that works in harmony with a dynamic river system: as well as absorbing flood water, they collect and put to good use the sediment that would otherwise be deposited further downstream, causing blockages and smothering valuable riverbed habitats

Another valuable function of floodplain meadows in nutrient capture. Phosphorous and nitrogen are essential for plant growth, but an overabundance in the watercourse can cause adverse effects on health and ecology. The increasing use of fertilisers in agriculture over the past 70 years has resulted in increased levels of both nitrogen and phosphorus in watercourses and concerns over water quality, and it has been widely publicised that parts of the River Wye are breaching the phosphate limits required for a healthy river ecosystem. Floodplain meadows can help improve river water quality by acting as a filtration system. The meadow soil is held securely in the deep root system and not lost during flood events, but sediment-bound phosphorus from the river is deposited on the grassland by the floodwaters and not returned to the river. This deposition of nutrient-bound sediments is the reason that floodplain meadows have traditionally supported such vigorous habitats and high-yielding hay crops.   


A sustainably managed floodplain meadow can also play a role in combatting climate change.  Permanent grasslands in the UK are estimated, in total, to store more than two billion tons of carbon to a depth of 100 cm. This is more than is stored below ground in woodland – for example studies have shown that at 15cm deep the average soil carbon of an English 100-year-old broadleaved woodland is 48 tonnes of carbon per hectare, whereas floodplain meadows are estimated to store 100 tonnes of carbon per hectare at this depth. Obviously woodland also stores large amounts of carbon above ground too, but below ground storage is particularly important because it’s less prone to wildfire risk, pests, disease, felling and so on. 

Alluvial soils, such as those supporting floodplain meadows, are particularly important in carbon sequestration because they grow deeper with each flood event providing new soil to fill with carbon, so the carbon keeps building up. There is evidence to suggest that higher species richness increases the carbon storage capacity of the soil, and that wetter habitats also increase carbon sequestration – all  boxes that can be ticked by a sustainably managed floodplain grassland. 

This is a lovely image produced by the Floodplain Meadows Partnership. It shows the deep and diverse root structures of some of the many plant species of floodplain meadow, that are so important in trapping carbon and phosphates and holding the soil together. 

Last but not least – there are so many benefits that a healthy functioning natural habitat right in the centre of the city can offer directly to the community. It is well documented the benefits to mental health that time spent with nature can deliver. For example, NHS England is now offering Green Social Prescribing to support people to engage in nature-based activities to enhance physical and mental health.

Having a thriving nature reserve right in the heart of the city presents a wonderful opportunity to bring people back to nature and provide a tranquil space within walking distance of thousands of local residents. 

Our aspiration for Bartonsham Meadows is that wildlife comes first, and that rather than providing an amenity function (like Bishops Meadow for example), the Reserve will provide a place for people to engage with, and relearn their place in nature. Traditionally managed meadows will also provide a link with the past – for example with restoration of historic ponds and orchards. The location of Bartonsham Meadows right in the heart of the city also provides a wonderful opportunity to offer natural history education. There will be regular wildlife surveys to monitor the restoration of the habitats, which residents will be invited to take part in, and the Wildlife Trust will be engaging with schools throughout the city to get them involved too.

For all of the reasons that we have detailed we started a campaign for Bartonsham to be managed as floodplain meadow.

As group of local residents we set up a steering committee, a website, developed a vision and started contacting all the stakeholders from local residents and users of the Meadows, the local church, Church Commissioners, tenant farmer, local council, MP and more. On this image you can see an excerpt from our constitution as a community association, where our two main objects are to restore the meadows as traditionally managed floodplain habitat and to provide environmental, educational and social benefits for the locality.

We received support and advice from the outset from Herefordshire Wildlife Trust, Herefordshire Meadows, and the Floodplain Meadows Partnership.

We started off asking the Church Commissioners to gift the Meadows to the people of Hereford on the same basis that the Wyeside Meadow, later the Bishop’s Meadow, was gifted to the city by the Church Commissioners on a 999-year lease in 1915. The Commissioners weren’t up for this.

We tried to buy the land – we had it valued, and the City Council agreed to help fund buying the Meadows. But the Church Commissioners weren’t up for selling.

We brokered a couple of deals with new tenants who would have farmed the land with regenerative methods, but these fell through due to opacity of lease terms from the Church Commissioners and a short lease – just five years.

We have built up our membership to around 400, run lots of events and publish a regular newsletter. We have held regular public activities over the last three years. The aim of these was to carry out an ecological audit of the Meadows – to establish the wildlife and habitats that are currently present – and also to engender a sense of stewardship in the Meadows for residents and to offer opportunities for learning. 

Activities included a hedgerow audit – recording the condition of the hedgerows – number of species and gaps to establish where gapping up or replanting was needed. We held several botany walks to build up a plant list of the site, which gradually got added to as an when more species were recorded. In total we recorded over 100 species. Last year we took part in the Big Butterfly Count run annually by the charity Butterfly Conservation – we combined it with a picnic and had a very good turn out of families. We have litter picking sessions throughout the year, and regular himalayan balsam bashing in late spring and early summer.

Here are some pics of our balsam bashing, an invasive species that contributes to erosion of the river banks. We’ve been carrying out bashing sessions for the past three years – and whilst it will always come back, as seeds are deposited by floodwaters, we have noticed a definite reduction in the dominance of balsam as a result of our efforts.

And were absolutely delighted when in March 2023 the HWT signed a 25-year lease with the Church Commissioners to manage the site as a nature reserve and restore it to species-rich floodplain meadow.

HWT had been extremely supportive of us from the outset but were not able to take on a short lease which is all the Church Commissioners were offering for the first few years of the campaign, until we managed to persuade them that ecological restoration could not take place on these terms.

Since HWT took on the Meadows last spring, they have been busy applying for grants and drawing up the management plan. And work to restore the habitats on the Meadows has already begun – with 675m of hedgerow replanted by FoBM and Wildlife Trust volunteers last winter.

The plan is to re-introduce livestock to the site, which will involve fencing the fields to make them both livestock and dog-proof. But ample public access to the Meadows will be retained. Wide rides will be created around the perimeter of the Meadows and internally along the public footpaths and desire lines. The aim is to retain the open feel of the Meadows that people so enjoy, but to ensure that wildlife within fenced areas is safe and undisturbed.  

The overwhelming dominance of vigorous weed species that have proliferated since the Meadows were abandoned presents a major challenge for habitat restoration. So the Wildlife Trust is taking two approaches to restoration of the floodplain landscape. The northern portion of the meadows will be actively managed to restore a traditional haymeadow habitat. This will involve repeated mowing over a number of years to deplete the fertility of the soil and reduce the vigour of the docks and thistles. It will then be re-seeded with meadow species and managed as a haymeadow, with aftermath grazing.

The southern portion of the meadows will be left to regenerate naturally. The vegetation that has developed will be retained but will be lightly grazed to keep the sward open and stop scrub taking over. This will allow the refuge for wildlife that has started to develop to be retained. The result of this will be two broadly different plant communities, providing a greater diversity of habitats and structure, which along with newly restored hedgerows and reinstated ponds will contribute to a rich mosaic of habitats across the floodplain landscape.

The Wildlife Trust are drawing up a survey programme that will monitor the development of habitats and species on the site and will allow a comparison to be made between the traditionally managed and naturally regenerating areas. This will include soil sampling, monthly bird transects, botanical quadrats and sweep netting for invertebrates. The aim of this is that the bulk of the surveys will be carried out by volunteers and there will be training sessions and events to get people involved and trained up.

We’ve got a few images to share showing recent work on the Meadows. This is our hedgerow planting session. We had about 40 different volunteers over five planting sessions last winter, and restored 675m of hedgerow. This was previously mostly gaps with the odd hawthorn. We received a £5,000 grant from the Greening the City Community Grant Scheme, as well as 400 free trees from the Woodland Trust and we (FOBM) contributed a further £330.

This little beauty is a Dock Beetle – and the image on the left shows the damage it does. We started noticing this last summer – the docks which pretty much form a monoculture on many of the fields were covered with them by the end of last year. We are waiting with interest to see how strongly the docks come back this spring – but it’s a lovely example of nature taking back control when its given half a chance.

There are lots of challenges and opportunities as we move forward. The current lease agreed by the Church Commissioners is for 25-year, which is a fantastic start but we would like to secure the future of this site in perpetuity. Flood events are increasing in severity. The new market in carbon credit and biodiversity net gain give funding opportunities but may greenlight ecological damage elsewhere. There is a fine line to be negotiated between people and wildlife – and especially dogs. There are logistical challenges to livestock management in an urban setting. Could we extend this type of land management beyond Bartonsham? For example, the Bishops Meadows could be managed for biodiversity. The Wildlife Trust are developing a network of wildlife friendly habitats throughout the city.

We are delighted by the success of our project. We continue to work to embed the project deeper in the local community. Please be in touch with us to share your views and do join us at future events.