Historical values

The rise and fall of the water meadow system

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Although the heyday of the watermeadows was the mid eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there are records of legal disputes over water control rights at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The earliest published descriptions of watermeadows may be in "The English Improver Improved" by William Blith, 1651. By 1681 JW Gent, in "Systema Agriculturae; The Mystery of Husbandry Discovered" was able to give an accurate description of the entire process, apparently from long experience. Nearly a century later in 1779 George Boswell of Piddletown wrote his "Treatise on Watering Meadows", a superbly practical manual.

Costings (£sd)

Mostly from 1793 & 1815 and involving unimproved meadow grasses.

Costs per acre
Capital outlay for the layout of a new meadow: £4 to £6
Annual maintenance cost: 7/-
Hay yield (tons/acre)
Water meadow:1 - 2½
Plain meadow:¾ - 1½
Upland pasture:½ - ¾
Income - typical rents per acre
Water meadow near town:£2 10/- to £3
Water meadow in country:£1 15/-
Plain (unwatered) meadow:10/- to 12/-

Watermeadow hay was not of such good quality as ordinary meadow hay but it was available much earlier and in greater quantities.

The early development of the watermeadows took place at the same time as many other advances in farming practices. The early emphasis on hay production soon passed to the sequence of early sheep, hay and then cattle on the aftermath. The pattern continued unchanged until mechanisation and increasing labour costs in the twentieth century made the hay harvest uneconomic. Typical watermeadow panes are no more than 20 metres wide, too narrow for a tractor to turn. After the second World War the remaining water meadows declined rapidly, used almost exclusively for grazing and competing with chemical fertilisers and better silage production. A few meadows lingered until the late 1970s but fell out of use as and when repairs were needed.

There are still a few watermeadows in operation, mostly on experimental or show farms and a few are maintained for wildlife conservation. Unless some method of machine maintenance can be devised it is unlikely they will reappear as a profitable method of farming but it is possible that some will be maintained for the 'Heritage' industry. There may be a case for running water meadows as part of a river management scheme, carriers are excellent spawning and nursery areas for many of our native fish.

Experiments at Kingston Maurward Agricultural College in the 1980s were abandoned when it was realised that the amount of (student) labour involved meant that the teaching of other more mainstream topics would suffer.