Maintenance and operation

The annual cycle of use

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Once the harvest was safely home attention turned to the water meadows. The channels would have become choked with summer weed growth and smaller mains were often trampled by cattle, horses or hay gathering wagons. Late autumn and early winter was the time to make repairs.

Channels were recut with a tracing knife and spade. The edges of all the channels were mowed to prevent waterborne debris collecting against rank weeds and forming accidental bends. Intentional bends were reinstated and panes smoothed by careful spreading of soil or river silt. If possible the meadow was given a while to settle before the first floating.

In some places the first flood of the autumn was used for the first floating as it carried a considerable burden of useful silt and nutrients, in others where cattle were grazed later on the aftermath the first autumn flood was allowed to pass unused as silty grass is unsuitable for grazing. Some meadows would not be touched before Christmas.

Floating proper took place in the early part of the year. January and February frost inhibit grass growth and it is these frosts that were kept at bay by running water. The meadow would have usable grass growth by mid March when stored hay would be running out. Sheep were usually the first animals on the meadows as in the early part of the year the ground would be too soft for cattle. Where possible sheep grazed the meadow by day and were driven uphill to turnips at night while the meadow drowned against the frost.

In any case sheep had to leave the waterside pastures by May before the season for liver fluke, a parasite who's secondary host is a watersnail.

The meadows were usually floated for about a week after the sheep and then kept 'dry' for six weeks or so while the hay crop matured. Water meadow hay had to be cut young as it often became coarse, its primary advantage was its very early availability and it was often carted to town and sold at a premium price to urban horse owners.

In a poor hay year a second crop of water meadow hay might be taken but more often cattle were allowed to graze on the aftermath.

Where more than one landowner had meadows along the watercourse and where mills used the same water, there were complex legally binding arrangements made for use of the water by turns. Usually there was a weekly rotation but sometimes specific dates or days of the month were allocated. Neighbours had to co-operate as quite often the hatch that controlled the waterlevel was sited some distance from the meadow on someone else's land.