Otherwise, irrigation re-wets the soil to produce a hay crop later in the season while the flowing water used in floating supplies oxygen to the sward during floating and, importantly, the water contains fertilising sediment. Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous my be found associated with sediment or dissolved in the water.
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Click here for more information on the operation of watermeadows.
Click here for a model for their operation.
The practice was known in medieval Europe, but it is in the ‘ Wessex’ region of southern England during the post-medieval period that water meadows reached their zenith. After irrigation events in winter and early spring (that varied from a few days to several weeks) the meadows were drained and animals were turned out on them to graze. Although today it is largely cattle that are seen on the meadows of the Salisbury Avon Valley, historically it was sheep that were central to the rural economy of Wessex.
Regionally there was the sheep-corn system, a truly remarkable integrated agricultural system of soil, water and nutrient management. Water meadows had spread rapidly since the sixteenth century and their success depended upon their production of animal products (notably sheep meat and wool), on producing a reliable hay crop and boosting the productivity of cereal crops grown on the thin chalky soils of the downland located adjacent to the valley bottoms. Animals were turned out on the meadows by day (usually to graze at very high stocking densities) and herded by the shepherd to be ‘folded’ on the cereal land by night. Their dung and urine thereby provided fertiliser for the crop. As time progressed, it was the impact on the cereal land that was economically most significant; the corn representing an important cash crop for the farmer. The sheep-corn system was threatened by the introduction of artificial fertiliser in the nineteenth century, and largely declined in the agricultural recession of 1870s. From that time, where meadow irrigation survived, it was through finding new markets for hay, milk and other cattle products around Salisbury in the nineteenth and twentieth century.
Surviving water meadow systems are a part of the heritage of Wessex. More than a mere historical curiosity there is great interest in them from landowners and farmers, from conservation bodies (such as the Harnham Water Meadows Trust) and local authorities in seeing their preservation and re-instatement. They provide not only living archaeological monuments but are also systems providing important habitats (for example wading birds and the southern damsel fly) and environmental functions including fertilisation and detention of floodwater. Recent research is showing their ability to trap sediment, utilise phosphorus and maybe modify the temperature of river systems in a beneficial way.
Hadrian F. Cook
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Cook, H.F., Cutting, R.L., Buhler, W. and Cummings, I.P.F. (2004).
Productivity and soil nutrient relations of bedwork watermeadows in southern England.
Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 102(1) 61-79.
Cook, H.F., Stearne, K. and Williamson, T. (2003).
The Origins of water meadows in England. Agricultural History Review 51 (II) 155-162.
Cook, H.F . and Williamson, T. (eds) (1999).
Water Management in the English Landscape: Field, Marsh and Meadow, Edinburgh University Press.
See Chapters by R. Cutting and I. Cummings, S. Wade Martins and T. Williamson and J. Bettey
Cutting R., Cook, H.F. and Cummings, I . (2003).
Hydraulic conditions, oxygenation, temperature and sediment relationships of bedwork watermeadows.
Hydrological Processes 17, 1823-1843.
Cowan M. (2005).
Wiltshire water meadows. Hobnob Press.
Cook H. and Williamson T. (eds) (2006)
Watermeadows: History, ecology and conservation. Windgather Press.
Everard M . (ed) (2005)
Water Meadows: Living treasures in the English Landscape Forrest Press.
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