Water meadows are an important element of Hampshire’s historic landscape, and characteristic of many of the chalk stream valleys. Hampshire is particularly important for water meadows and they are a local feature of national importance. A survey commissioned by Hampshire County Council identified the location, character and condition of the distinctive meadow systems. Only about 4% were still well preserved and 40% were described as ‘destroyed’.
A water meadow is an area of valley bottom pasture which is deliberately flooded (also known as floated). The water flow is controlled across the meadow from carriers to drains. Nutrients are deposited, and in the late winter the water protects the grass roots from the frost, ensuring early spring grass, known as the ‘early bite’. This allowed stock to be grazed earlier in the spring, and so more animals could be bought through the winter. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries water meadows became more common, and in Hampshire became an integral part of the farming cycle for many river valleys.
With increased use of fertilisers and high labour costs water meadows started going out of use in the twentieth century, and very few are still floated. Where they survive, the patterns of earthworks are a distinctive historic landscape type.
Caring for the historic structures associated with water meadows frequently raises questions. A recent publication provides some guidance, and copies of 'The Conservation of Water Meadows Structures' are available.