Reclaiming nature: taking inspiration from a rare and extraordinary Oxfordshire meadow that’s barely changed for 1,000 years
Oxfordshire County Council is transferring the lease of a meadow it owns in Swinford to the owners of the nearby Thames Valley Wildflower Meadow Restoration Project in Long Mead. The aim is to allow local experts in biodiversity to bring the meadow back to its full potential and help create a nature recovery network and habitat corridor linking a series of ancient meadows together. Some of the people involved in the project explain why it’s taking place and how it will work
Cllr Liz Leffman
Oxfordshire County Council leader
“Our nation has to do something about recovering biodiversity. Here in Oxfordshire, we are committed to playing our part as it’s essential in tackling the climate emergency, and ensuring we have a healthy environment, not just for ourselves, but for the species which live in this county.
“This project is about creating a network between the various patches of land that exist along the Thames. Long Mead is one of the most biodiverse wildflower meadows anywhere in the UK and it’s amazing that we’ve got it here in Oxfordshire. We have the opportunity now to expand that. The county council owns two adjacent pieces of land and we want to recreate what’s been created at Long Mead.”
Chief executive of the Thames Valley Wildflower Meadow Restoration Project
“Long Mead is one of the very few remaining ancient flood plain meadows in the country. There are only four square miles left of this particular habitat in the whole of the UK – that’s about the size of Heathrow Airport. Roughly 25 per cent of this surviving habitat is in and around Oxfordshire. It’s a habitat that is on the verge of extinction, so we have a great opportunity and a huge responsibility both to protect it and then restore it.
“It's a landscape that’s only visible for about two months a year, so it’s disappearing without our knowing it. Here we have this fantastic opportunity with the county council to use their land, which is ripe for restoration, to create a nature recovery network linking Long Mead with other ancient meadows along the River Thames and areas of special scientific interest. We’re delighted that the council is joining us to create this connected network.
“It's a difficult and long-term project, but these are irreplaceable habitats. It’s absolutely critical that we protect them.”
Cllr Pete Sudbury
Oxfordshire County Council cabinet member for climate change & environment
“Wildflower meadows are some of the most biodiverse sites you can get. They also lock up a lot of carbon dioxide. The more biodiverse they are, the better they are at storing carbon.
“The UK is one of the most biodiversity depleted countries in the world. There is a lot of evidence that as you chip away at biodiversity, at some point you lose whole ecosystems. And we depend on healthy ecosystems to produce the food that we eat, to keep the air purified, and so on, so losing biodiversity is a really bad idea.
“Oxfordshire County Council owns a site next door to Long Mead which has been very badly degraded by being overgrazed as a pasture, but which could be restored. By transferring the lease to the owners of Long Mead we believe they will be able to restore it.
“We have a unique opportunity here to create a continuous band of wildlife-rich meadows all the way to the middle of Oxford.
“The natural world is our entire life support system. Degrading it is a very bad idea. We need to not only help it recover but to make it stronger because it’s probably also our strongest bulwark against climate change.”
Prof Kevan Martin
Co-founder of the Thames Valley Wildflower Meadow Restoration Project
“A wildflower hay meadow like Long Mead provides hay which feeds the cattle or sheep in winter and it also provides the aftermath grazing for the cattle. Long Mead, which is in the Domesday Book, has been doing that service since before the Norman invasion of 1066. So, for 1,000 years, pretty much the same thing has happened. That’s an extraordinary thing in agriculture.
“The impact of climate change means that we now have started thinking about other things. One particular issue that worries us in this region is flooding, which has become more frequent. But these meadows are actually built to be flooded – that’s part of the ecology. The plant populations that have built up on the meadow are extremely resilient, so if anything is going to get you through climate change, it’s these meadows. When they flood, silt comes on to the meadows and in medieval times these were the most valuable fields because they had free fertiliser coming from the silt.
“The plants found on the meadow, which are perennial and are often very deep rooted, pull down carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and then it’s stored in the soils and stored very deeply. Because the soils are never disturbed – they are never ploughed, all that happens is hay is taken – that carbon stays there. The storage is massive. In the top 10cm you’ve got over 200 tonnes of carbon per hectare.”
Nature recovery network senior advisor for Natural England
“As part of a 25-year environment plan, the government has a commitment to create a connected nature recovery network across the whole country. Here in Oxfordshire, Long Mead and its surrounding meadows are an absolutely key part of that network. We’ve seen from history that we can’t reverse biodiversity decline just by protecting these meadows in isolation, we need to connect them together and make them bigger to create this network. These meadows are going to be a vital part of that in Oxfordshire.”