Saturday, August 9, 2008

Flora and fauna at risk on shrinking meadows

Flora and fauna at risk on shrinking meadows

In damp fields at various sites around the country, scientists are hard at work counting plants, as part of a major new project to save Britain's last few remaining floodplain meadows.

floodplain meadow

Once common across the floodplains of England and Wales, these flower-strewn meadows declined dramatically due to urbanisation and changes in farming practice. Since the 1950s, 98 per cent of species- rich meadows have been lost, leaving less than 1,000 hectares scattered around the country.

The remaining fragments, though protected by national and European law, are at risk from a range of factors including climate change and inappropriate management. By carrying out detailed surveys during the next 10 years, scientists hope to find out what is happening to them and how we can protect them.

Floodplain meadows evolved over hundreds of years and were highly prized for their natural fertility, maintained through regular winter flooding. Every year they yielded a valuable hay crop, and then provided grazing for animals. Today, they help alleviate flooding through winter storage of floodwaters and provide a habitat for an enormous range of plants and animals, including butterflies, birds such as curlews and snipe, and flowers such as the rare snake's head fritillary.

"Due to their position on floodplains, these meadows are particularly sensitive to changes in rainfall pattern," explains David Gowing, professor of botany at The Open University, which is hosting the project. "And being species-rich, they are sensitive to the increasing burden of nutrients and pollution from the wider river catchment and the atmosphere."

But understanding what affects floodplain meadows and how, is no easy task. Emma Rothero is the project's outreach co-ordinator, also based at The Open University. She explains: "In the past, changes in farming practice were responsible for the meadows' disappearance but now they are threatened by things like gravel extraction and development, which can reduce the amount of water reaching the meadows, and by flood defences.

"Too much water can be as damaging as too little, as the plants do not tolerate being flooded into the growing season. Other factors which cause changes in nutrient levels, such as sewage treatment works and increases in fertiliser application in the catchment, can also be a problem."

By monitoring the floodplains over a long period of time the scientists hope to amass a large database of information. But the work involved is painstaking. "These are botanically rich environments with up to 40 species per square metre," says Rothero.

"At the moment we are staking out a number of sites around the country with one-metre by one-metre quadrats. A quadrat is basically a square on the ground. On one site you might have 200 quadrats. You record all the plants within each quadrat. On some sites we are taking samples of soil and hay and looking at the nutrient levels, and on some we are recording water levels using electronic data loggers. If you collect this data over a long period of time, you can see how the plant species change in response to water and nutrient levels.

"The aim is to get good scientific information to people like landowners, conservation officers, site managers and policy-makers, so they can make decisions about site and catchment management. We plan to run workshops and courses, and to make the scientists accessible to those with questions and issues on wildflower floodplain meadows."

The Floodplain Meadows Project is hosted by The Open University in partnership with the Environment Agency, Natural England, The Grasslands Trust, the Field Studies Council, The Wildlife Trusts and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. It has been set up with funding from the Esmee Fairburn Foundation and the Garfield Weston Foundation, but the team needs to raise more funds to support the project in the long term, says Rothero. "If anyone wants to support us, we'd be interested in hearing from them."

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