FMP Conference 2023 from Freshwater Ecologist perspective

Patrycja Meadows

How could you not enjoy learning about meadow restoration in the Natural History Museum through compelling presentations followed by visits to beautiful ancient meadows…followed by a drink of fizz under the Megalosaurus skeleton and listening to an amazing talk by well-known author Lee Schofield about rewilding an upland farm in Lake District! An event to remember and spark enthusiasm for meadow restoration. A place and time where farmers, scientists, taxonomists, project managers and artists can meet and share their passion for restoring nature.

The event kicked off in an incredible place surrounded by natural history evidence displayed in an architectural feast for the eye with a lovely selection of hot beverages. Presentations began with Natural England’s methods used to assess grassland communities by Katey Stephen. Perfect start to get an idea about communities of high and low botanical conservation value and how to assess the condition of grasslands. The second presentation on biological regeneration of soils was my favourite. Professor Jonathan Leake was truly awakening for us all. Most UK arable soils have less than 2% organic matter. Loss of organic matter leads to loss of water storage capacity. We learned about water stable soil aggregate fractions, then about biologically driven regenerative agriculture, soil carbon storage (wheat roots contribute 0.4 tonnes C per ha per year, where grass-clover ley roots 1 tonne of C per ha per year) and how to feed soil with carbon and nitrogen using 3-year grass-clover ley. Then another presentation by Dr Clare Lawson brilliantly followed on carbon storage in floodplain soils: the message I took home was about the soil profile, roots and density of humus that play a key role in carbon storage.

There is a fabulous poster with rooting structure of floodplain meadow plants and the winner of the longest roots was black knapweed which can be matched only by the great burnet, with birdsfoot trefoil in 3rd place – which is a surprise looking at the humble plant on the surface.  We learned about haymaking to manage soil nutrients and had a healthy and delicious lunch, followed by creative time with artist Alice Walker who helped to make some head-space with craft and beautiful patterns weaving a soil profile.

After lunch we travelled to beautiful ancient and restored meadows at Yarnton Mead and Worton Park where we could learn or refresh our grass identification skills. I was lucky to pair up with an expert Lisa Lane. Ancient meadow was denser and less dominated by grasses. At the end of the day I was able to top up energy with ice creams sitting on a Tolkien bench in the middle of Oxford with a meadow community behind me and a river in front of me (bliss for a freshwater ecologist with a love for meadows!). The evening reception was surreal: dinner in a midst of dinosaurs and people from so many various backgrounds united in similar passion.

FMP conference 2023 by Patrycja Meadows
© Patrycja Meadows

On day two the structure of the day was reversed: site visit and workshops in the morning amongst the beautiful flowers of a restored meadow next to Christ Church College with 5 experts. My absolute favourite was about the invertebrates and fungi of floodplain meadows by Judy Webb on how the key indicator plants and insects interact and link with woody debris and mouse holes. Making a meadow with the green hay method rather than harvested seed by Professor Kevan AC Martin and Catriona Bass was very informative on how landowners, academics and specialists work together to connect fragments of floodplain meadows around Oxford.

After topping up on vitamin D in the sun-bathed meadow, the conference finished with a series of talks on how things happen through policy, funding and delivery. The first presentation by the Environment Agency was on natural flood management, used to offset environmental impacts. This was followed by 21 agroecological farming case studies from the Flourishing Floodplains project, presented by Dr Charlotte Chivers. Key challenges pointed out were: blackgrass burdens, hay cutting dates, agri-environment scheme payment rates, carbon accounting and public access.

After learning about the challenges, Tim Field made acquainted us with the Cotswold’s Farmer Cluster plan to restore health of water catchments by applying regenerative agriculture to support nature, carbon sequestration and food production. That led brilliantly to the talk about Biodiversity Net Gain and Carbon Offsetting opportunities in Oxfordshire by Matt Whitney, bringing the development sector and land management to the table. We learned about Part 6 of the Environment Act coming into force in Nov this year, which will make 10% biodiversity net gain (BNG) mandatory for all developments under the Town and County Planning Act. Importantly the developer will need to create habitat or purchase units to deliver a minimum of 10% BNG. The final presentation by Andy Rumming gave a farmer's perspective and how grazing and hay making is vital to sustain restored floodplain meadows. How to create a regenerative farms business that produces valuable forage and have diverse floodplain meadows? It was close to my heart as I was volunteering counting fritillaries on North Meadow NNR, Cricklade for many years, which where Andy makes hay.

What made the conference most compelling was that you could hear all aspect of meadow management and science from farmer perspectives, as well as ecologists and project managers, which made the whole event fascinating and very educational, broadening my understanding of the restoration of these beautiful floodplain meadows.