Floodplain Meadows – Beauty and Utility
In Shakespeare’s play Henry V, there is a scene, after the battle of Agincourt, where the captured Duke of Burgundy is lamenting the cost of war. He does this by conjuring up before our eyes a picture of what happens to a meadow when the men have gone off to battle and the fields lie neglected with no-one to mow them.
The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover,
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility.
Just how much time Shakespeare spent in his birthplace of
Stratford is a subject of argument but what we cannot deny
is that he had carefully noted what really happens in the
kinds of meadow once commonplace along river valleys like
the Warwickshire Avon, when the hay goes uncut. Colourful
plants such as the cowslip, great burnet and white clover,
characteristic of the regularly mown grassland, denied the
scythe, are overwhelmed by tall umbellifers (the kecksies),
docks, thistles and burdock, plants more familiar to us from
neglected waysides, grown unkempt.
Such meadows as Shakespeare observed came about for
practical reasons: on the fertile soils of regularly flooded
lowland valleys, they yielded valuable herbage, cut in
summer when the fields were dry and stored as hay, to keep
animals fed during the winter cold when nothing grew. Their
visual delight, though appealing to the playwright’s eye and
ours – and maybe even, we might say, to the mower’s – was a
by-product of this regular treatment, but the characteristic of
floodplain meadows is that beauty and utility were, and are,
combined in that sustainable management. And it was the
loss of both, in the neglect that came with conflict, that the
Duke of Burgundy lamented.
In nature conservation, it is beauty that has usually driven
our concern – or at least those values of wildlife, habitat
and landscape that are not so readily costed in terms of
productivity or cash, maybe not even simply totalled up
as this or that number of species or sites that remain now.
We might even think that the creatures of the floodplain
meadows, the plants and the animals that characterise them,
though brought together by human influence as a distinctive
habitat, have value all of their own, no matter what they
might be worth to us.
Yet, almost nothing that we now value and sustain for its
wildlife interest was produced by nature management,
and most habitats have come about through complex
relationships with the lives and livelihood of people
interacting with the soils and climate of particular places,
and earning their living thereby. And that gives them cultural
significance, too. Trying to understand such a complex and
fine balance is what the Floodplain Meadows Partnership
is all about. It has been an exceptional example of how
painstaking vegetation survey, quality scientific research
and a sensitivity to local communities and their history
of involvement with the landscape can come together
in understanding and celebration of one of our glorious
The richness of information and practical guidance in this
book is a testimony to the achievement of the project
team and their partners across the country, rightly
recognised by the financial support they have repeatedly
attracted for the quality and commitment of their work.
You can be guaranteed here to find facts and inspiration,
encouragement and direction to take up the call for
floodplain-meadow restoration through a project in
your own community, building local partnerships or by
supporting national campaigns. A combination of science
and culture – beauty and utility indeed.