Raising awareness of the importance of the Wylye watermeadows
What is a watermeadow?
A watermeadow is an artificially re-engineered river flood plain, designed to use the natural characteristics of flowing water to increase grass yields. They were developed in England during the 17h century, possibly from medieval monastic experiments, and eventually spread across the entire river systems of southern England. They often involved the wholesale diversion of rivers and incorporated several distinct and unique features, such as 'carrier' channels, 'drain' and 'carriage' earthworks, and complex systems of 'hatches' and even aqueducts through which the flow of water was controlled. Many of these features survive today along riversides in southern England, with some of the best examples being around Salisbury in Wiltshire.
There are two broad categories of watermeadows: 'catchworks' and 'bedworks'. The latter are the more common and extensive and it is these that form the focus of our study. During operation of valley-bottoms, 'bedwork' systems (called 'drowning' or 'floating') water was diverted from a river via a 'carrier' channel and onto earthwork ridges known as 'panes' from which it flowed downwards into 'drains' and thence flowed back into the river. The earthworks are known as the 'bedworks' the ideal flow was 25mm deep within the grass sward.
Typical areas for individual watermeadows in Wiltshire vary between 1ha and 8ha.
In Wiltshire, the men who constructed, repaired and operated the watermeadows became known as 'Drowners;' or 'Floaters' and operation of the systems required considerable co-operation amongst landowners and tenants.
The systems were operated mainly in the winter and early spring, when the spring water of the chalk streams that flow through southern England warmed the grass and brought nutrients to the soil. Typically this caused grass to start growing about one month earlier so that animals could benefit from the 'early bite' of grass. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, often these animals were ewes and lambs that were led away from the meadow in the afternoon to fields of wheat or barley so their dung could fertilise the arable land on the valley sides. This was called the 'sheep-corn' system. Later in the season, during the summer when the soil was drying out watermeadows were re-watered so that (typically) two cuts of hay were taken and used to feed other animals including horses. Operation increased grass yields by c. five times and advanced the growing season, leading to a raopid increase of agricultural wealth in southern England during the Agricultural Revolution.
Catchwork watermeadows (sometimes called 'catchmeadows') were of relatively simple design and comprised near-horizontal gutters on a hillside that were fed from a high level 'carrier' (irrigation canal) with off-takes running downslope to feed the gutters, from natural springs or from ponds at a high level. Catchworks were important in the midland counties, in Somerset and in Devon. They were not likely to have been of great significance in Wiltshire.
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