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Raising awareness of the importance of the Wylye watermeadows

What is a watermeadow and why are they important?

A watermeadow is an area of land in a river valley that has been altered by people to allow river water to flow over it in a controllable manner, so that the grass will grow earlier and faster. The medieval farmers of southern England noticed that the grass next to the small rivers – or 'winterbournes' – grew in the winter and grew faster and taller if the winterbournes had flooded a little for a short time. This was because the spring water that comes out of the ground in southern England is warmer than the winter air and contains lots of important natural fertilizers, so it protects the grass from frost and feeds it, especially where the bedrock is chalk or limestone.

DeviceSo, farmers started creating their own artificial winterbournes by digging lots of channels all over the valley floors and building special dams – called 'hatches'- that they used to control where the water went, and when. We don't know exactly when they started, but expert watermeadow engineers were working by the end of the Tudor period, and by the Georgian period they had changed every bit of land within the river valleys of the whole of southern England. That involved a lot of people and a lot of work because there were no mechanical diggers in those days: everything was done by hand. DeviceBut it paid off: farmers grew five times more grass than normal, so their sheep ate five times as much and produced five times as much manure on the corn fields on the hills, which produced five times as much corn for the farmers to sell. Everyone involved benefited. The watermeadows were a very important part of our history.

The watermeadows still survive in most of the river valleys, as rows of shallow ditches and overgrown hatches and bridges of brick or stone, but they are not used anymore because it is easier and cheaper for farmers to use artificial fertilizers. Important plants and animals live in them, but they could also be useful for other reasons. The rivers of southern England have three new problems that could be solved by using watermeadows again. DeviceThe first is silt and mud that is washing into the rivers from the ploughed fields and roads: this is clogging up the gravel in the river bed and killing the baby fish that grow in it. The second is pollution: this is killing everything that lives in the rivers. The third is flooding, which damaging people's houses and farmers' fields. Scientific experiments have demonstrated that a watermeadow is a sort of filter that takes most of the silt and pollution out of the river water, whilst running the water across the meadows for a short time prevents flooding further downstream where most people live. If we could get some of the watermeadows working again we would solve three of the main problems facing our rivers and the people who live and work next to them.

Michael Heaton
The National Archaeology Centre