Friday, 1 August 2014

A New Plan to Restore the 'Jewels in the Mersey Valley's Crown'

When I first moved to South Manchester, in the early 1970s, I soon discovered the Mersey Valley – particularly the Chorlton Ees and Ivy Green areas on either side of Chorlton Brook, and Hardy Farm (collectively referred to locally as ‘Chorlton Meadows’). At that time I was developing an interest in botany and was amazed at the richness of this area’s flora. It soon became a favourite Sunday afternoon occupation of mine to take a field guide down to the Meadows and try to identify as many plants as possible. I soon realised that many of the plants that I was finding were of the ‘semi-natural grassland’ type, and I was aware, even then, that semi-natural grasslands are the richest habitats for wildlife in England, supporting more priority species than any other; a fifth of all priority species are associated with grasslands. I was also aware that grasslands are now among our most endangered habitats – mainly due, in the wider countryside, to agricultural intensification.

Since 1940 we have lost 97% of our English meadows and pastures and there are only 8000 ha left 1.

There were once extensive ‘water meadows’ in the Mersey Valley. Local Farmers deliberately flooded these meadows in the winter months in order to deposit a layer of rich silt which, in turn, produced abundant grasses which were cut for hay in late summer. Such a system would have a required an elaborate and sophisticated system of sluices and drains in order to get the water first on to and then off of the meadows. This system has been almost entirely lost. The local name for a water meadow was ‘ees’. Chorlton’s historian, John Lloyd, wrote that:

“Those who tilled the fields in those past ages were well aware of the need to control the flood waters in the ees and of the benefit of the layer of rich silt left by the receding water. Within the memory of people still alive [in the late 1960s?] the farmer who last tenanted Barlow Hall Farm commented that the sluice gates in the banks were never opened for the first flood of the year for this brought down the rubbish, but the second flood brought down the rich mud 2.”

A more recent local historian, Andrew Simpson, has added more detail on the operation of water meadows:

“[Meadows consist of] grassland that is kept damp by the use of ditches (called carriers) that are worked by sluice gates fed by a river. The land is fed with water up to an inch in depth from October to January for about fifteen to twenty days at a time, before water is run off into the drainage ditches. The land is then left to dry out for five or six days, so the air can get to the grass. The early watering took advantage of the autumnal floods, which brought with them a mix of nutrients and silt which enriched the land 3.”

Andrew also tells us that this was a very skilled job, which the owner of the land, the farmer, tended to undertake himself rather than delegate it to some employee. It required constant vigilance to ensure that, “the water was evenly distributed and that there was no accumulation of weeds.” The farmer also had to beware of hard frosts which “could turn the meadow into ‘one sheet of ice which will draw the grass into heaps which is very injurious to meadows’”. Nevertheless, an early 20th century farmer, Alfred Higginbotham, annually flooded one of his meadows so that the people of the local community could skate on it (there are still local ancestral memories of skating on the Meadows in the winter).

The next important task was haymaking during the summer. The grass was first cut and then left for a few days to partly dry. It was then turned and left for a few more days to complete the drying process. Finally, it was loaded into carts, taken off to be stored in barns and then used, during the winter months, to feed farm animals with. Haymaking was also a highly skilled job and was very labour intensive.

In the course of the research for his book, Andrew came across a mid-19th century haymaker named John Gresty. John lived in a cottage on The Row (now Beech Road) and probably hired himself out to local farmers at the appropriate time of year. John’s most precious possession was almost certainly the key tool of his trade – his scythe. This consisted of an artfully crooked pole, about 5 ½ feet long, with two projecting side handles and a 3 foot long, curved steel blade at the ‘business end’; one of John’s essential skills would have been knowing how to use a whetstone to keep this blade razor sharp. He, and any fellow haymakers, would have swept their scythes through the grass in long arcs, keeping the blades parallel to and close to the ground. The blades were swept from right to left depositing the cut grass on the left.

As a result of this annual management regime, probably acting over several centuries, a distinctive type of meadow evolved (hence the term ‘semi-natural’). According to the National Vegetation Classification scheme 4 our meadows were of the ‘Alopecurus-Sanguisorba’ type (code MG4). This means that they were distinguished by the presence of the grass Meadow Foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis) and the tall herb Great Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis). The following ‘constant’ species were also present in such meadows (I have indicated the grasses with a ‘g’) 5:

Common Mouse-ear (Cerastium fontanum)
Crested Dog-tail (Cynosurus cristatus) g
Red Fescue (Festuca rubra) g
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus) g
Meadow Vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)
Autumn Hawkbit (Leontodon autumnalis)
Perennial Rye-grass (Lolium perenne) g
Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus acris)
Common Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.)
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)
White Clover (Trifolium repens)

It’s interesting to note that all of the species on this list are still locally common. In individual meadows, other grasses and grassland species, not on the core list, could often be found.

It’s important to note that MG4 grasslands are now quite rare and tend to be confined to certain river valleys in central England.          

From the late 19th century until the late 1970s agriculture was gradually displaced from the Mersey Valley and what was deposited on the ees was not “rich mud” but the growing city’s effluent in the form of sewage works and rubbish dumps.  Nevertheless, when the Mersey Valley Countryside Warden Service was established in 1978 there were still some reasonably good examples of semi-natural grassland left on both the Chorlton and Sale sides of the river (although, alas, these were no longer subjected to winter flooding). Sale Ees was particularly interesting because it was still visibly a reasonably good example of an MG4 meadow. On Chorlton Ees there is still a colony of Adderstongue Fern – a curious, and increasingly scarce little plant generally considered to be an indicator species of unimproved grassland (and probably corresponding to the colony recorded from the area by the Manchester botanist, Richard Buxton in his Flora of 1849 6).

After 1978 the management and conservation of these meadows (together with a few more, further west and east) should have been, in my opinion, an absolute priority – but tree planting and the encouragement of ‘informal recreation’ took precedence.  At the very least these areas needed to be cut in late summer and the hay crop taken off, and indeed this happened for a few years. The hay crop was sold to local livestock owners but eventually, for reasons which are obscure, this form of management ceased. Soon the meadows began to deteriorate. Although some Great Burnet still grows on Sale Ees the area is dominated by coarse grasses and is succumbing to natural succession and trees and shrubs are taking over. Chorlton Ees has begun to go the same way but it has been further damaged by a pyromaniac who for a number of years has set fire to it every spring; now it is dominated by Rosebay Willowherb – a plant which readily colonises burned ground.  These precious few acres of historic, local semi-natural grassland are now very severely degraded and could be lost in a few years. I must give credit, though, to the Environment Agency who cleared rank vegetation from two key areas earlier this year.

In 2013 Natural England gave the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit £8820 for a 2 year project to investigate the decline of Mersey Valley grasslands. Now GMEU has a plan to restore many of these grasslands. The plan has been written by GMEU ecologist, David Dutton 7. David’s plan is meticulously detailed and fully costed and is presently the subject of a Manchester Clean City grant application. Nevertheless, if this application is unsuccessful other sources of funding will need to be sought and additional funding could be necessary at some future date.

David’s discussions with Wythenshawe Farm Centre have revealed that they are currently short of hay to feed their livestock in winter and would be interested in taking hay from our grasslands once they have been brought into a mowable condition. Initial costs include establishing this mowable condition, purchase of agricultural machinery and the provision of additional livestock and barn space.

If successful, this project should radically improve the biodiversity of our area, enhance its attractiveness, re-introduce active management and generate income and jobs for the locality through the production of local food.

The project will also provide baseline information on the feasibility of the re-introduction of controlled winter flooding, increase the financial viability of Wythenshawe Farm Centre and act as a template for the sustainable management of similar sites across Manchester.

Forty years ago I was afforded just a glimpse of an ancient landscape; a landscape dominated by flowery grasslands. The green shades of the tall grasses were augmented by the yellows of Buttercups, Dandelions and Common Catsear and the reddish haze of Sorrel. Around the margins of these meadows and on the river banks were great patches of pink Bistort, the creamy, frothy flowers of Sweet Cicely and Meadowsweet and the huge leaves of Butterbur. These precious, beautiful remnants of a, once more extensive, landscape were a tribute to the skill, knowledge and dedication of local farming dynasties such as the Baileys and the Higginbothams and the back-breaking toil of men like John Gresty and his nameless workmates. Then, for decades, I had to watch them degrade and occasionally to watch them being destroyed by people who didn’t understand their significance (and probably didn’t even care). These ‘jewels in the Mersey Valley’s crown’ are presently very faded - but now there’s hope that they can be restored.

  1. The Grasslands Trust Website (http://grasslands-trust.org/current-situation)

  1. Lloyd, J.M., ‘The Township of Chorlton cum Hardy’, E.J. Morten, 1972

  1. Simpson, A., ‘The Story of Chorlton-cum-Hardy’, The History Press, 2012

  1. Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), Habitat Account – Natural and semi-natural grassland formations, 6510 Lowland hay meadows (Alopecurus pratensis, Sanguisorba officinalis) (http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/protectedsites/sacselection/habitat.asp?FeatureIntCode=H6510)

  1. Wikipedia article on British NVC Community MG4
  1. Buxton, R., ‘A Botanical Guide to the Flowering Plants, Ferns, Mosses and Algae, Found Indigenous Within Sixteen Miles of Manchester’, Longman And Co., 1849

  1. Dutton, D., ‘Chorlton Meadows’, ‘Clean City Grant Application’, Greater Manchester Ecology Unit, June 2014
Postscript: Sadly, this blog thingy appears to have been "improved" in such a way that I can no longer add photos. Anyone know how to do this?