The steep-sided chalk valleys of the River Avon develop in to extensive wet meadow grassland in its lower reaches. The floodplain is one of the largest areas of species-rich unimproved grassland in Britain. Since 1945, the extent of semi-natural grassland in the UK has declined significantly, with around 90% of this lost in the lowlands, which demonstrates the importance of the Avon Valley landscape.
Water meadows are areas of grassland, which are deliberately flooded over-winter using a system of channels, ditches and sluice gates. Historically, this was conducted at the discretion of the landowner for two main purposes: to promote early grass growth and to improve grass quality. The traditional wet meadow farming pattern of the valley reflects the propensity for winter flooding, with relatively low-intensity livestock farms. Unfortunately, the technique of water meadow management declined from the 1930s due to the changes in farming practice, drainage and expanding human settlements. However, many landowners still operate parts of practice with vary degrees of intensity and maintain species-rich wet meadows.
Moving away from the river, toward the rise, the valley holds extensive areas of agriculturally improved grassland and mixed farmland, with typically small woodland patches, dry heath and mire. Woodlands are typically broad-leaved though there has been some improvement with coniferous plantation. The east of the Avon Valley rises to the New Forest National Park, an extensive area of open heathland, mire and woodland. There are several large manors in the south of the valley, which hold extensive landscaped parklands with mature trees and lakes. Other terrestrial habitats include marshy grassland, reedbeds and rich fens.
Above Ringwood, adjacent to one of our wet-meadow hotspot sites are a series of lakes, associated with gravel extraction. Gravel extraction still occurs in the Valley, though historic extraction has created new wetland habitats which in places have been turned over to nature reserves, such as our partner HIWWT, Blashford Lakes Reserve.
Despite changes, the Avon Valley still holds proportions of wet meadow grassland of national and European importance, earning it a designation as RAMSAR site. The floodplain’s remaining wet grasslands are ideal for breeding waders and hence where we focus the work of LIFE Waders for Real to improve habitats. Our hotspot sites are spread throughout the south of the Avon Valley, being centred approximately on Ringwood.