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Wey Meadow gets go ahead

by Rod Kebble

Natural England, the regulator for Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), has given written permission for the Pierrepont monitoring group to go ahead with its plan to excavate one of the old water channels in Wey Meadow, which constitutes Unit 5 of the Thursley, Hankley and Frensham Commons SSSI and was once a water meadow.

Footbridge over the River Wey at the Countryside Restoration Trust's Pierrepont Farm.

The footbridge over the River Wey, with the ford just the other side. Wey Meadow is in the foreground. When this picture was taken in mid-February, the stumps of the former footbridge were not visible but now the river level has dropped to expose them.

The group is permitted to dig to a length of 25-30 metres, a width of 1-1.5 metres and to a depth of less than a metre. The intention is not to join the excavation to the River Wey but to dig into the boggy ground so that the channel fills with water and then to see what forms of aquatic life are present.

That said, when the group visited the meadow last Saturday the ground was noticeably less boggy than it usually is at this time of the year. The River Wey was flowing rapidly past but the stumps of the former footbridge (a little to the west of the present one) were visible, which is not normally the case. The drought in south-east England is obviously having an effect.

Some of the old water channels run at right angles to the river and in former times had sluice gates to control the flow of water into and out of the meadow. They fed into longer channels that run west-east across the meadow, more or less parallel to the river.

The idea behind water meadows was that they could be flooded in the early Spring, to introduce nutrients from the river into the field and that the water would warm the soil and prevent frosts. The result would be a good crop of early grass on which to feed cattle that had spent the winter indoors. This was of particular benefit in the days before chemical fertilisers were available.

The intention was not to irrigate the field and the water was released back into the river once the warmer weather arrived.

Wey Meadow was probably such a water meadow for several hundreds of years — it is known that a farm has existed on the Pierrepont site since at least 1601 and maybe since much earlier.

Countryside Restoration Trust volunteer Bill Young inspects Wey Meadow.

Monitoring group leader Bill Young inspects Wey Meadow. Lines of sedge show where the channels are. In summer, the grass here is waist-high.

Before they can start digging (though there was some discussion of letting the conservation group do the actual labouring), the monitors will have to carry out a survey in the early summer to find exactly what is growing on the chosen site. This could result in another site having to be picked, as Wey Meadow is home to the southern marsh orchid and other wild flowers of special interest. The fen raft spider is another resident and will probably be as interested as the monitors to see what turns up in the flooded channel.

The excavation might need to be carried out manually, as the ground could yet be too wet for a mechanical digger to reach the site without (a) causing damage and (b) sinking. The Environment Agency will require all spoil to be removed from the site, so that the volunteers will probably have to carry it in bags — the ground is unsuitable for wheelbarrows — several hundred metres to the ford, from where it can be loaded into a tractor’s bucket for onward transportation.

Two possible sites for the dig were identified on Saturday and the next step will be to calculate levels to determine which is the lower and thus less likely to dry up this year. The digging itself will take place around October.

Goat Willow catkins next to the River Wey at the Countryside Restorations Trust's Pierrepont Farm.

Catkins on a Goat Willow in Wey Meadow, 31st March 2012.