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How to restore or create floodplain meadows

Species rich meadow

See our How to restore and create floodplain meadows advice note here.

There are a number of different methods for increasing the species diversity of a site. The approach chosen will depend on the results of the site assessment. To change the characteristics of the site prior to sward enhancement, a change in management, reducing fertility, managing water levels or treatment of compacted soils may be required. Changes to the way the meadow is managed may be enough to encourage more plants back into the sward, especially if there is a good seed source nearby, and if there have been damaging changes to the meadow in the past that can be reversed. More details on restoration can be found in our Floodplain Meadows Beauty and Utility Handbook, or contact us for specific technical advice.

Introducing a change in agricultural management

At some sites, favourable soil characteristics and water regime, together with the presence of some key plant species, may mean that a simple change in management is sufficient for restoration. For example, a change from management as pasture to hay cutting is being trialled on a number of sites in the UK:

Reducing excessive fertility in the soil

The most suitbale sites for restoration are those where soil fertility is moderate. However, the use of artificial fertilisers, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus (which are relatively persistent in soils) have increased the fertility of many farmland soils. On fertile sites, nutrient levels will need reducing before species rich swards can develop. A case study at Chimney meadows demonstrates reduction in soil fertility through an annual hay cut over ten years. More intensive methods such as topsoil removal and turf stripping can be considered, although these are costly and potentially damaging to soil structure.

Changing the soil-water regime

Drains and ditches can be used in floodplain meadows to restore an appropriate water regime to a site. Water-control structures, usually found in ditches can be manipulated to manage water levels, or in many cases the maintenance or reinstatement of small foot drains, gutters or grips in the soil is required to ensure water can drain away effectively, creating aerobic conditions for plant growth. They can also be used where a site has become too dry.

A network of shallow cross drains to facilitate removal of water fromt eh top layers of the soil to prevent water logging and anoxia. Copyright RNRP

Case studies showing changes in hydrology

Using existing seed banks

Consideration should always be given as to whether the desired plant species could arrive naturaly, either from the existing seed bank, or through existing plants setting seed. The evidence suggests that most floodplain meadow plants have short-lived seed banks (less than 5 years) and seeds from floodplain meadow plants tend to be dispersed very locally, within 1.5 m of the parent plant. It may therefore be necessary to introduce seed to a meadow creation site, such as Broad Meadow, in Northamptonshire.

Introducing seed from elsewhere

Alternatively, another effective means of seed transferral is by the spreading of dry hay or green hay, such as at Swill Brook Meadow and Clattinger Farm. It is a low cost option and was a traditional approach used by farmers to repair bare patches of meadow. It can be collected locally and spread immediately or alternatively seed can be collected ising a brush-harvesting machine and dried for later use.

Further information on practical methods of meadow restoration can be found by following the various lnks below or on our case studies page for more practical examples:

CIEEM resources library (including what used to be Flora Locale) Seach on Flora

Lowland Grassland Management Handbook

Technical Information Notes - Natural England

TIN035 Soil sampling for habitat recreation and restoration 

TIN036 Soil and agri-environment schemes: interpretation of soil analysis

TIN037 Soil texture 

TIN038  Seed sources for grassland restoration and re-creation in Environmental Stewardship 

TIN060 The use of yellow-rattle to facilitate grassland diversification 

TIN061 Sward enhancement: selection of suitable sites 

TIN062 Sward enhancement: choice of methods  

TIN063 Sward enhancement: diversifying grassland by spreading species rich green hay 

TIN064 Sward enhancement: diversifying grassland by oversowing and slot seeding 

TIN065 Sward enhancement: diversifying grassland using pot-grown wildflowers or seedling plugs 

TIN067 Arable reversion to species-rich grassland: establishing a sown sward  

TIN068 Arable reversion to species-rich grassland: early management of the new sward