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The Harnham Water Meadows

The term floating means to construct the meadows so named; the term drowning means then to operate the irrigation system so created.

In the chalk areas the traditional farming involved sheep and corn (principally wheat and barley). It was the corn harvest that provided the main wealth from land. The fertility of the cornlands on the lower slopes of the downs was maintained by great sheep flocks. These were grazed on the upper slopes by day and then close folded on the arable by night so that the dung fertilised the shallow chalk soil. The fold was a temporary pen of portable willow hurdles moved every day so that the whole arable area was covered. Thus in short, more sheep meant more corn and more income.

Wiltshire Horn ram and ewe - Professor David Law 1841

Wiltshire Horn ram and ewe - Professor
David Law 1841

The sheep used was, in the main, the Wiltshire Longhorn, tall and long legged. A report of 1794 tells us that the first and principal purpose of keeping sheep was undoubtedly the dung of the sheepfold and the second the wool. The Wiltshire Longhorns were well adapted to this, walking the long distance from the downs to the river meadows in the winter months and receptive to being close folded by night. They provided "the golden Hoof".

Corn output was increased from the early seventeenth century when larger flocks could be supported by the extra high quality grass on the so called bottom meadows. This was made possible by developing such rudimentary irrigation systems that may have existed into the more complex system eventually to be found throughout the chalk area locally, this development began early in the seventeenth century with the first known documented evidence on the River Nadder in 1625.

In constructing, or floating, irrigated meadows the purpose was to cover them with a thin blanket of water from the chalk stream. There was an elaborate networkof hatches and channels to distribute the river water over the surface of

the whole area to be irrigated and to drain it off; creating in the process the means, by management of the water, to provide a constantly moving sheet of water. This maintained the grass at a steady temperature, protected it from frost and deposited valuable silt and sediment around the roots.

There was a much earlier growth of the grass providing the "early bite" grazing in the months up to April or May when the downland grazing was poor and the hay stock exhausted. Larger flocks could be kept over winter to enrich the arable. Later in the year one or more hay crops could be taken. The Wessex chalkland was ideally suited to this development. The fast flowing streams were easily diverted and the water came direct from the aquafers, or reservoirs, in the chalk, lime rich and at a constant temperature.

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