Wildlife returns to water meadows

After years of devastation, a classic English landscape is on the brink of a comeback. Severin Carrell reports
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The Independent Online

To many conservationists, they are the classic images of a pastoral England destroyed by modern agriculture - the rich, vibrant riverside meadows painted by John Constable nearly two centuries ago.

To many conservationists, they are the classic images of a pastoral England destroyed by modern agriculture - the rich, vibrant riverside meadows painted by John Constable nearly two centuries ago.

But now conservationists are mounting a major effort to restore Britain's water meadows and wet grasslands, after decades of neglect, reintroducing birds such as snipe and redshank, rare orchids, the yellow flag iris and the water vole.

Since the Second World War, more than one million hectares of water meadow have been lost - ploughed for grain and potatoes, or taken for house-building - with devastating consequences for plant and wildlife. A study given to The Independent on Sunday has revealed disturbing evidence about the impact on birds that rely on wet grasslands and water meadows.

The British Trust for Ornithology has found that in the past 20 years, the number of yellow wagtails found on wet grasslands has dropped by 65 per cent. In northern England, barely a 10th of yellow wagtails now survive. The trust has tracked similar declines in other birds dependent on wet grasslands - the curlew, oystercatcher and lapwing.

But the BTO and English Nature, the agency which oversees government conservation strategy, believe that new "environmental stewardship" grants for farmers offered under the reformed Common Agriculture Policy will be a turning point. From this month, British farmers will be given millions of pounds in subsidies to re-create natural river banks, reseed waterside meadows and make their farms far more wildlife-friendly. Reinstating these natural flood plains will also play a significant part in tackling floods. "We're holding out high hopes for this new scheme," said Richard Jefferson, a grasslands ecologist for English Nature.

Juliet Vickery, the BTO's expert on farmland birds, said the new scheme was one of the "toughest options" for farmers. However, the rewards were immense, she said: farmers will earn £355 for every hectare of restored wetland. She added: "Water meadows are a wonderful eco-system which have been lost, yet they're part of the classic English countryside we want to see."

In some counties, vast swathes of water meadow have been lost, leaving only a rump in places such as Romney Marsh. In Suffolk, where Constable painted several of his most famous rural scenes, there are only 250 hectares of genuine water meadow left, a fraction of the original area.

Steve Aylward, Suffolk Wildlife Trust's reserves manager, said: "The character of these rivers have changed so much since Constable's time. We now have monoculture crops which are unattractive to most wildlife. There are huge issues with flood protection as well, which has a clear economic role to play."

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