Why are we failing to save our critically endangered floodplain wildflower meadows?
If Oxford’s wildflower meadows were an animal there would be a stream of tourists from all over the world coming to see the last of their kind in the wild. As rare as the Rollright Stones and more beautiful even than Stonehenge, there are only four square miles of their habitat left in the UK. Imagine an area the size of Heathrow Airport broken into small pieces and scattered across the country. Hinksey Meadow is one of the last to go and it is now threatened by Oxford’s Flood Alleviation Scheme.
The problem for these 1000-year-old meadows is that they are already culturally extinct. Today, only a tiny handful of people have ever set foot into their glorious riot of flowers and only a handful of farmers know their value to 21st century food production. This means that floodplain meadows can’t muster the great public campaigns that ancient woodlands, great crested newts, or even curlews do when threatened with destruction.
Not enough people understand the critical role that floodplain meadows play in our 21st century fight against climate change and biodiversity decline. With over 40 different plants per metre square, they are (with other meadows) Britain’s most botanically diverse habitat and they provide food for an equally diverse range of wildlife, including some of our most threatened species. (Their decline has already led to the extinction of one species in Oxfordshire).
Their highly absorbent soils play a vital role in flood management. They also filter our water, remove pollution and they store carbon more effectively, and more securely, than trees. Indeed, new research from the Open University suggests that carbon storage in the soils of floodplain meadows may rival even peat bogs.
Furthermore, unlike other biodiverse habitats such as ancient woodlands and wetlands, they provide all these ecosystem services (as we now call them) while also playing a fundamental role in 21st century food production. They supply nutrient-rich fodder for fattening premium cuts of lamb and beef without the need for costly fertilisers or weedkillers (or the fuel and manpower costs to administer them).
Furthermore, with our now unpredictable weather, floodplain meadows provide a most resilient crop. The diversity of species means that in wet years one set of plants flourish and in dry years others flourish, so the crop never fails - unlike monoculture arable crops that can get wiped out in a flood or a drought.
If floodplain meadows are now forgotten, they once played a central role in society. Until the mid-20th century, you would have walked along the Thames from Lechlade to Oxford through blooming swathes of sneezewort, pepper saxifrage, doddery dicks, crested dog’s tail, eggs and bacon, jack-go-to-bed-by-noon – their many affectionate names as colourful as their flowers, show how cherished in common culture they used to be. Indeed, they provided dyes for our clothing, flavourings for our drinks, and medicines to cure us from disease. Meadowsweet, for example, whose key ingredient is salicylic acid, was grown commercially for use in aspirin.
They were known by farmers as the ‘hospital fields’ since the nutrients of their many varied plants meant healthy livestock and low vet fees (and still do today for the few farmers that own them).
Until the arrival of artificial fertilisers, they were the most valuable land in the country since the winter floods renewed their fertility each year. Every prized acre was documented in the Domesday Book. Eynsham, for example, was noted as having 255 acres of meadow, 150 acres of this was Long Mead, which lies along the Thames upstream of the Swinford Toll Bridge. Any villager who owned a cow or a sheep was entitled to a strip of Long Mead for hay.
In the 20th century, Long Mead shared the fate of other floodplain meadows around Oxford and only a 30-acre fragment of the original remains. Seed from this Domesday meadow is now being used to try to restore riverside fields along the Thames and Cherwell rivers, to connect up the remaining fragments of the ancient Oxford Meads. In 2020, Long Mead’s Thames Valley Wildflower Meadow Restoration Project (TVWMRP) spread its seed on Christ Church Meadows and, in 2021, TVWMRP began the process of restoring Merton College’s Music Meadow and Great Meadow on the Cherwell as well as 25 acres at Pinkhill.
But there is no quick fix. It is predicted to take 150 years for the majority of species to colonise a restored site, according to research from the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology. Furthermore, most restoration projects are likely to fail. The Floodplain Meadows Partnership at the Open University documented a 75% failure rate in a study of 163 restoration projects that had been carried out over the last 30 years.
Saving floodplain meadows by moving them (translocation) turns out also to be wishful thinking. There is no scientific evidence of success, nor could there be. Imagine the topography of the floodplain: water seeps through, around and over the land, on its way to the river. Here it fills a tiny depression, there it dampens a higher piece of ground, over there is a small rise which is only inundated when it floods. These small changes in ground level over a vast area are what produce the particular diversity of wet-loving and dry-loving species and the floodplain meadows’ resilience. Long Mead has 120 different species of plant, some of their roots stretch more than two metres deep and are woven together in a fine tapestry. Hinksey Mead is similarly complex. When we understand this, grandiose proposals to translocate it to create the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme begins to sound like something from a Soviet movie.
The chances of replicating 1000-year-old floodplain meadows, like Hinksey Mead are slim, even if our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great, great grandchildren manage to nurture the restoration work that we are starting now. They are a unique and irreplaceable part of our cultural heritage, no less than Stonehenge and the Rollright Stones. But unlike these museum pieces, floodplain meadows play a vital and complex role in our 21st century society, and not least in mitigating floods.
Oxford’s Flood Alleviation Scheme makes clear that the gains of the current design are contingent on variables connected with the level of climate change, the location of flood prone homes and businesses, and future development. What it doesn’t make clear is that the loss (of biodiversity, cultural heritage and ecosystem services connected with Hinksey Mead) is absolute. And this absolute loss is not just of local significance but of national and international significance.
- Catriona Bass is a writer and environmentalist. She is co-founder of the Thames Valley Wildflower Meadow Restoration Project and owner of Long Mead Local Wildlife Site. She advises local government, landowners and NGOs on floodplain meadows. She is also an environmental assessor for the Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment.
- The Thames Valley Wildflower Meadow Restoration Project has recently received the High Sheriff’s Climate Action Heroes Award and was a subject of Oxford University’s Nature Based Solutions documentary for COP26, Rivers and Coast
- A Community Petition: Save Hinksey Meadows has been started by Evelyn Sanders.
- Hinksey Mead (10 hectares) is designated a Local Wildlife Site, which does not give it any statutory protection. 2019 government guidelines indicate that such habitat should be designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest if it is over 0.5 hectare, which would give it statutory protection
- Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme Planning Application, deadline for comments – 9th
- ‘Recovering lost hay meadows: An overview of floodplain-meadow restoration projects in England and Wales’ Emma Rothero, Irina Tatarenko, David Gowing, School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, Open University, Gass Building, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA, England, United Kingdom, Journal for Nature Conservation 58 (2020)
- Can long-term floodplain meadow recreation replicate species composition and functional characteristics of target grasslands? Ben A. Woodcock, Alison W. McDonald and Richard F. Pywell NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Maclean Building, Wallingford, Oxfordshire OX10 8BB, UK; and 2Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3RB, UK, Journal of Applied Ecology 2011, 48, 1070–1078