Flourishing Floodplains

© Mike Dodd

Flourishing Floodplains

As well as storing vast quantities of floodwater, healthy river floodplains can support a huge range of wildlife, including many declining freshwater species. The Flourishing Floodplains project is restoring threatened wetland habitats in the farmed landscape of the Severn and Avon Vales, helping to increase biodiversity, store carbon, improve soil and water quality, and connect people with nature.

This project is supported by the Green Recovery Challenge fund and is lead by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust alongside project partners Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group South West (FWAG-SW) and the Floodplain Meadows Partnership led by the Open University (FMP-OU).

Many of the UK's fertile floodplains have been developed for industrial and societal needs, resulting in the loss of wildlife-rich habitats as well as the important ecosystem services they provide.

The Severn and Avon Vales are prime examples. Formerly a large, connected mosaic of floodplain meadows, marshes and small wetlands, the landscape has seen a marked decline in priority habitats and in characteristic species such as curlew and European eel.

Floodplain meadows in this farmed landscape were once rich with different species, but only 1,100ha remain in England and Wales. The Severn and Avon Vales account for greater than 10% of the remaining resource. Floodplain meadows support a diversity of plants and other wildlife, and deliver ecosystem services including carbon and floodwater storage.

Set amongst the meadows are ponds and other small waterbodies, which support a disproportionately high number of freshwater species and are important hotspots for declining terrestrial wildlife, such as farmland birds (many of which are now on the Red List). Yet despite their value, WWT research shows that 60% of ponds have been lost from the Severn Vale over the last 100 years.

The eel and curlew are iconic species closely associated with local culture and livelihoods; however, they are in trouble. The Severn catchment is internationally important for the Critically Endangered European eel, which has declined catastrophically since the 1980s. Following major declines, curlews are considered the most urgent bird conservation priority in the UK. Curlew populations in the southern lowlands are particularly at risk, and the Severn and Avon Vales is home to one of the largest breeding populations in this area (approximately 35 pairs).

Restoring habitat

Our primary work is to create and restore healthy floodplain habitat to support the recovery of a huge range of dependent species. To do this, we are creating a network of wildlife-rich ponds across a 4,000ha landscape while beginning pond restoration work in two other landscapes. Farmland ponds may be small, but they are hugely important wetland pockets that provide far-reaching benefits to wildlife.

We are also surveying 1,000ha of botanically diverse floodplain meadows, with the aim of restoring at least 20 ha of this priority habitat. As part of this work, we will be building the evidence base to prove how important floodplain meadows are as stores of soil carbon.

Protecting species

At the same time, we'll be implementing emergency action to improve curlew breeding success in 2,400ha of currently occupied meadows, working with farmers who want to help the birds, and building the evidence to inform future action.
We'll be learning more about the elusive European eel by mapping their distribution in small wetlands using eDNA techniques.

Creating advocates

Most importantly, we're working with farmers and other land managers on nature-friendly farming, floodplain restoration, soil health and wetland management, so that they have the knowledge and skills to build on our work.
We're also helping members of the public to understand and care about floodplain wetlands through events, citizen science and community initiatives.

We want to reverse the fortunes of the Severn and Avon Vale floodplain, by creating and restoring wetland habitat and encouraging more sensitive land management. This will enhance flood resilience, improve soil health and increase carbon storage, amongst many other benefits. Eel and curlew populations will be safeguarded and show strong signs of recovery.
We will have built capacity for future floodplain restoration by training and supporting land managers. Local communities will have a greater understanding of and involvement in their natural floodplain heritage and feel invested in it, as a result of public engagement, volunteering and citizen science.

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