Sitting alongside the River Welland in Stamford, the Freeman’s Meadows are a much loved green lung for the town, inviting walkers to explore its well trodden paths, families to picnic in the long grass and anglers to throw a line into the river from the banks. Inspired by recent wildflower planting schemes up and down the country, a group of local residents have decided to investigate the possibility of restoring botanical diversity to the meadows, improving their quality for the people and wildlife of the town.
In years gone by, the Freeman’s Meadows flooded regularly and were grazed by cattle and sheep. This created the ideal conditions for a floodplain meadow to develop, with a diverse array of wildflower and insect species. When the management practices changed around 25 years ago and livestock no longer grazed the meadows, coarser plants such as nettles, docks and hogweed became more abundant. Without being suppressed by hungry herbivores, these plants can quickly out-compete more delicate wildflower species, reducing biodiversity. Dredged material from the River Welland and the adjacent Stamford Millstream was also spread at various locations across the meadows, enriching the soil further and allowing the botanic bullies to grow even more prolifically.
Wildflower meadows are incredibly diverse habitats and can support in excess of 40 plant species per square metre! By the 13th century, most of lowland Britain’s floodplains were managed as meadows with wildlife value maintained through traditional management. Unfortunately, we have lost around 97% of wildflower rich meadows since the 1930s due to agricultural intensification and changes in land management practices. This is particularly apparent in large swathes of the Welland Valley, were fields are now ploughed right up to the river banks. Only one site still exists on the banks of the River Welland near Seaton in Rutland. It’s managed by the conservation charity, Plantlife, and is well worth a visit in early summer when in full bloom: https://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/nature-reserves-important-plant-areas/nature-reserves/seaton-meadows
With consultation from Lincolnshire’s Floodplain Meadows Champion, the Welland Rivers Trust is now working with the community to investigate how a wider diversity of wild flowers can be encouraged on the meadows once more, with the first step to understand the current condition of the meadows.
Yesterday, soil samples were taken from five locations to be tested for their nutrient quantity, pH and texture. These are important parameters in meadow restoration and dictate which species of wildflower will be able to recolonise the site. With much elbow grease and perspiration, dipwells were also installed up to 1 metre deep at the five sample locations. This will allow the volunteers to monitor the fluctuation of the water table across the meadows over the course of the year, providing further useful information to aid the restoration project. Once the results come in, a trial area for a change in management can be established and the project can begin in earnest! Meadow restoration is a long process and can take years to show results, so ensuring community interest is maintained in the project will be key to its success.
The Welland Rivers Trust and the local residents are very grateful to the Freemen of Stamford, who own the site and support the restoration of its biodiversity! If you live in the town and would like to volunteer to collect some of the water table data, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org