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The decline of floodplain meadows

Species rich meadow
The high plant diversity and the invertebrates and birds that depend on them make these habitats very special.

The distribution and extent of floodplain meadows in the past is not really known, but they are thought to have been widespread wherever suitable substrate, topography, hydrological regime and land-use practices coincided (Jefferson, 1997). For example, Rackham (1986) suggests that by the thirteenth century, most floodplains (including those of small streams) were managed as meadows. These fertile meadows were of great agricultural value to rural communities and their wildlife interest was maintained as a by-product of traditional agricultural practices. However, agricultural intensification since the mid-twentieth century led to rapid (but unquantified) losses of floodplain meadows, whose flat terrain and fertile soils made them more likely to be agriculturally intensified than other lowland grassland types (Rodwell et al, 2007). This decline was exacerbated by losses through sand and gravel extraction, urban and industrial development (Jefferson and Pinches, 2011) and hydrological changes to river floodplains.


Conservation status

In an effort to remove or reduce decline of floodplain meadows, most remaining sites have been designated as SSSIs- (see below Holmes et al 2005). For example, by 2011, about 69% of the resource of Burnet floodplain meadow (MG4) and 84% of Kingcup–carnation sedge meadow (MG8) was within SSSIs. There are currently nine SSSIs that support both communities, while 104 just have Kingcup–carnation sedge meadow (MG8) and 84 just have Burnet floodplain meadow (MG4). The revised lowland grassland SSSI guidelines (Jefferson et al. 2014) lists both communities as nationally rare grassland types of high botanical value; sites supporting 0.5 ha or more would qualify as SSSIs.


Text Box: Designations

SSSIs – Site of Special Scientific Interest are sites of particular wildlife or geological interest which are legally protected through the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). They are notified by Natural England, who ensure that they are managed appropriately and monitor their condition. See: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/protected-areas-sites-of-special-scientific-interest

SACs – Special Areas of Conservation are sites designated under the European Habitats Directive for the presence of habitats listed on Annex I of the Directive, and form part of a network of protected sites of international importance known as Natura 2000. See: http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-23

SPAs – Special Protection Areas are sites designated under the European Birds Directive for their international importance for birds, and also form part of the Natura 2000 network. See:

NNRs - National Nature Reserves are nationally important nature reserves containing examples of the important habitats, species and geology.  In many cases, they are owned and managed by conservation organisations such as Natural England, National Trust, Forestry Commission, RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and local authorities. See: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/national-nature-reserves-in-england and http://www.snh.gov.uk/protecting-scotlands-nature/protected-areas/national-designations/nnr/ 

Priority Habitats are those listed in Section 41 (England) and Section 42 (Wales) of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006. Previously known as Biodiversity Action Plan Habitats, these are habitats considered to be of principal importance for the purpose of conserving biodiversity. See:

Local Sites (e.g. County Wildlife Sites, Sites of Nature Conservation Importance and similar) are sites of conservation interest at the local level. Although not legally protected, their importance is recognised by local authorities for example when considering planning applications. See: 

MAGIC is a useful online interactive mapping facility which provides geographic information on site designations with links to individual site details: http://www.magic.gov.uk/


Designation links

SSSIs –  Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and https://www.gov.uk/guidance/protected-areas-sites-of-special-scientific-interest

SACs –  http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-23

SPAs – http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-162

NNRs - https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/national-nature-reserves-in-england and http://www.snh.gov.uk/protecting-scotlands-nature/protected-areas/national-designations/nnr/

Priority Habitats - http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-5705

Local Sites - http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130123162834/http://www.defra.gov.uk/

MAGIC  http://magic.gov.uk/


European context

There are well documented examples of floodplain meadow decline from the Netherlands, northern France, northern and western Germany, Belgium, Italy, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic, hungary, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states. The losses experienced in the UK are similar to those found across Europe. Crause et al. (2011) estimate that wet and species-rich meadows have declined by more than 80% on the floodplains of Northern Germany since the 1950s; whilst Soons et al. (2005) describe the almost complete disappearance of wet and moist grasslands over the past 100 years from riverine landscapes in the lowlands of the Netherlands. In Hungary, wet meadows have declined by over 65% in recent decades (Joyce and Wade 1998). A similar figure is given for Estonia (Anon, 2011) and of the surveyed areas of Estonian floodplain meadows, less than half are considered as being in satisfactory condition.


The European Red List of Habitats

The European Red List of Habitats was a €1.5M project funded by the European Commission DG (Environment) to assess changes in extent and quality of all natural and semi-natural terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats across Europe and in the neighbouring seas. The Red List provides an entirely new and all-embracing tool to review commitments for protecting and restoring the land and seas of Europe. It covers a much wider range of habitats than those legally protected under the Habitats Directive and aims to help meet the targets of the EU2020 Biodiversity Strategy.

Click here to see the website where all outputs from the list are being lodged with the European Environment Agency.