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The Harnham Water Meadows Education

What is a Water Meadow?

A water meadow is a grass field usually beside a river where water is made to run evenly across the surface. The flow is controlled by a complicated system of carriages (bringing water on) and drains that remove the water. Watermeadows were once operated by experts called ‘drowners’. Drowners because they drowned the grass.

Typical Layout

What Plants Need

How sheep help the Watermeadows

A ridge, called a bedwork being drowned

A ridge, called a bedwork being drowned

In a water meadow, water is diverted from the river at a hatch and runs along the tops of ridges to trickle through the grass to the drains that return it to the river.

Four hundred years ago, when water meadows started, the number of animals that a farmer could keep was limited by food stored during the winter.

The water warms the grass over the winter months making it grow better in the spring for animals to graze. Later in the summer, the meadows grew a crop of hay so that more animals could feed.

To grow, plants need sunlight, water and carbon dioxide in the air so they can photosynthesise (produce sugar needed from the plant) and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium from the soil.

Grasses need to grow in temperatures above about 5 oC. On cold winter or spring days water from the river is warmer than this.

Water meadows make water flow over the surface warming the grass, adding nutrients and, providing it moves, takes oxygen in from the air so the soil does not go stagnant.

Sheep were moved to land growing wheat or barley during the night. The sheep were valuable, not so much for their wool and meat, but for their dung that fertilised the soil and their feet that helped to break up the ground for the corn crop from which the farmer earned most money.

In many systems, sheep were moved at night from meadow to valley side arable land in so their dung and urine could fertilise the crop in the ‘sheep-corn’ system.

Because of the large number of people involved (the drowner, farmer and shepherd) very few watermeadows are working today.

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