This is a post I’ve mulling over for nearly a year on and off. As a society we now commonly restore rivers to improve water quality or for ecological benefits, and as recent posts on here have demonstrated we may be able to restore rivers as part of flood mitigation. We could probably categorise all of these benefits as “ecosystem services”, in that management changes to the river are designed to deliver tangible ecological or hydrological benefits. On occasion programmes to “restore” rivers are met with opposition from stakeholders. The most common objections I have seen are: where restoration is perceived to have a potentially detrimental effect on recreation or other river uses (e.g. fishing), where there is the perception that the restoration will cause economic losses to stakeholders (e.g. loss or degradation of productive agricultural land), or because stakeholders resist change because they attach a value to the landscape in its current form.
Last year I visited Dorset and walked around the Frome water meadows near Lower Bockhampton. These water meadows are an iconic English landscape providing the back drop to many of the novels of Thomas Hardy, particularly Tess of the d’Urbervilles, in which they were the “Vale of the Great Dairies”. Water meadows also feature in some of the paintings of John Constable. These landscapes could therefore be described as having cultural, and agricultural heritage value. Despite their potential importance for heritage they are primarily a working agricultural landscape and as agricultural practice changed the economic viability of water meadows declined and now working examples are very rare. Many water meadows are described as being in a “derelict” state, which isn’t as bad as it sounds! By derelict it means they are a man-made landscape which has ceased to be managed or operated for its original purpose. Contrary to the impression given by the word “derelict” they tend to be rich, biodiverse landscapes with lush grassland and old, partly silted up and sometimes ephemeral channels. These features contribute to a mosaic of habitats with many marginal ecological niches for important species such as water voles and many derelict meadows are classed Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
“The river itself which nourished the grass and cows of these renowned dairies, flowed not like the streams in Blackmoor. Those were slow, silent, often turbid; flowing over beds of mud into which the incautious wader might sink and vanish unawares. The Var* waters were clear as the pure River of Life shown to the Evangelist, rapid as the shadow of a cloud, with pebbly shallows that prattled to the sky all day long. There the water-flower was the lily; the crowfoot here.”
The Vale of the Great Dairies, from The Wessex of Thomas Hardy by Bertram Windle. *The Var is The Frome in the novel.
A traditional bedwork water meadow, typical of those in chalk stream valleys of Southern England, is a very complex system of channels and drains designed to periodically flood the grassland with a thin, fast moving, sheet of river water. The idea is that the river water warmed the soil and enriched it with deposited silt, promoting grass growth. Furthermore as the water was fast flowing it was sufficiently oxygenated to allow grass to grow even when submerged. This ensured lambs in water meadow environments had access to grass up to six weeks earlier and that the land produced abundant hay crops up to four times that of non-irrigated meadows.
The problem in terms of how we value these landscapes is that I have been able to find very little evidence that water meadows managed in the traditional way provide a net biodiversity and ecological improvement over the meadows in their derelict state (albeit that the different landscapes favour different specific species). It is therefore difficult to make a case they should be conserved for ecological reasons. As a result efforts to converse and preserve these landscapes are focused on the landscape heritage value and indeed such efforts are championed by Historic England (formerly English Heritage); not a body I would normally think of in connection to river restoration.
Historic England report that when considering restoration of water meadows it is more popular to manage them as disused systems to benefit wading birds and meadow plants, with a New Environmental Land Management Scheme in place to assist this.
So we are left with something of a quandary, it would be a tragedy if all the water meadows in England disappeared (admittedly an unlikely occurrence with meadows at Salisbury owned/managed by the cathedral), but it is very hard to make a case for retaining them on anything other than cultural heritage, which isn’t normally a major (let alone the only) driver for managing a river landscape. What I think this example illustrates is that although we can do a lot of good science in relation to river management ultimately landscape management is not all a game of weights and measures and there has to be room for less substantial and even emotional considerations.
This further makes me think about the current debate for afforesting hill slopes; in areas such as Cumbria and Wales for example where the hills are historically managed for sheep farms and in areas in Scotland and Yorkshire where uplands are managed for moorland similar arguments could be made for the agricultural and cultural heritage value of these iconic landscapes. That’s not to say that I believe such values are likely to outweigh the potential for value through flood mitigation and increased ecological richness of upland forests, but it is important to acknowledge such values are placed onto the landscape when making and consulting on management decisions. Certainly thinking about the cultural value of landscapes has given me a new perspective on anti-restoration groups I came across (and I have to admit initially dismissed) in the New Forest.
I’d be really interested to hear people’s experiences of valuing landscapes that perhaps aren’t otherwise viable, or management experiences of dealing with conflicting values. Is it even important to preserve landscapes which are part of our cultural heritage?