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The centuries-old solution to today’s sustainability challenges

Professor David Gowing and colleagues are using their research to unlock the potential of an ancient nature-based agricultural solution to tackle today’s sustainability challenges.

“Until around 100 years ago, floodplain meadows were a common sight alongside British rivers and played a vital role in absorbing floodwater and trapping sediment whilst producing sustainable food”, Professor Gowing explains. “Thanks to the sediments floods deposit, these systems need no artificial fertilisers, can contain more than 40 different plant species per square metre and are an essential nectar source for pollinating insects, such as bees. They also provide livestock with sustainable grazing during the autumn and hay during the winter. Sadly, intensive farming, urban and industrial development have seen more than 97% of floodplain meadows disappear during the past century, and today only 3,000 hectares remain.”

Carbon storage potential

Since 2007, Gowing and OU colleagues have spearheaded the Floodplain Meadows Partnership, an innovative collaboration with Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, the Environment Agency, The National Trust, and other partners to research, promote and restore these unique meadows across England and Wales. “It’s a little known fact that well-managed grassland soils can also store more carbon than woodland soil”, he notes. “According to our early research, the soil in carefully managed meadows can hold as much as twice the carbon as most types of woodland.”

Turning back the clock on intensive agriculture

The partnership recently won a substantial grant from Ecover to further study the potential for floodplain carbon storage and restore 50 hectares of floodplain meadows along the banks of the River Thames in Oxfordshire. It has also proposed a restoration target of 70,000 hectares of floodplain meadows in England and Wales. “This ambitious target would enable us to more effectively benefit from the services like flood prevention and climate change mitigation that floodplain meadows so effectively provide”, Gowing explains. “To support this objective, we are working to influence England’s new Environmental Land Management scheme to include incentives for farmers to stop growing crops ever more intensively, and instead work in harmony with the natural world in the same way as previous generations.”