Oxford’s Medieval Meadow

by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne

Hinksey Meadow is first on record in a grant by Henry I to Abingdon Abbey 1102 x 1110, and it’s still there, in West Oxford in walking distance of Oxford Railway Station, one of the rarest, most species-rich meadows in Britain. But it’s threatened with destruction – by the Environment Agency.  The EA is insisting that it should build only the most destructive version of its Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme, scooping out a  5 km channel through the Oxford green corridor from Botley to Sandford Lock, through Hinksey Meadow.

The UK has lost 97% of its meadows since World War II, including so many floodmeadows that the Thames Valley contains a quarter of those remaining. Hinksey Meadow is even rarer than that: it  is a wildflower floodplain meadow with type MG43a grassland, of which only four square miles survive in the UK as a whole.  It’s of much higher diversity than, for instance, Port Meadow.

Hinksey Meadow has survived for the best part of a thousand years because it’s part of a sustainable agricultural collaboration between humans and their environment: managed grazing fertilizes the meadow, and the meadow’s hay cut provides food for stock with no need for industrial fertilizer.  Hinksey is also an invaluable seedbank for the future of regenerative farming.  

Image1. Part of the scheme area, showing the direction floodwater takes and the location of the EA’s channel (up to 200 metres wide). Red arrow marks site of Hinksey Meadow

The channel requires

  • digging out c.400,000 cubic metres (700,000 tonnes) of soil and gravel
  • removing 3780 mature trees and 11 kms hedgerows
  • destroying habitat for many species of insects, birds and animals
  • destroying existing braided floodplain streams and wild life corridor
  • destroying iconic Oxford riverine willowlined landscapes
  • compulsory purchase of some 1000 parcels of land in and around the scheme area
  • release of sequestered carbon: grassland is second only to peat in its capacity

Hinksey Meadow cannot survive digging up and hydrological interference.

Landscape artist Elaine Kazimierczuk painted the Meadow for a charity auction to raise funds for its defence: see her at work and hear why, even on the grey windy English summer’s day the weather gave her,  she feels so passionately about the Meadow

The  EA’s channel offers

  • a small increase in alleviation to a few dozen houses and shops at massive financial and environmental cost
  • a big ticket scheme that will ultimately enable more development in and around the floodplain

And it is not needed:

  • up to 85-90% of the scheme’s protection is offered by much smaller localised flood defences such as bunds and earthworks
  • independent experts in hydrology and cost/benefits have shown that no channel works very nearly as well, without the enormous environmental destruction, and have also proposed several other alternative strategies.

Why does the EA insist on the channel?

It won’t say.  In the absence of clear reasons, we can only speculate that it decided on the channel (its characteristic response in twentieth-century flood schemes) in advance and then worked backwards to try to find mitigations. Independent experts pointed out that the EA used the wrong DEFRA metric for the area’s biodiversity in its application.  In its revised application the proper metric turned the EA’s claimed 10% increase in biodiversity into a biodiversity loss.

The EA now claims it will

  • translocate MG4a grassland. This cannot be done according to independent experts: such grassland takes hundreds of years to create.
  • create wetlands and plant saplings onsite and offsite (in unspecified locations somewhere in Oxfordshire)
  • secure environmental partners and get landowners to help with the costs of monitoring and maintenance

This leads to absolute loss of irreplaceable bio-diversity and interlocking mature eco-systems at least 30 years to wait before saplings become mature trees – if they are maintained. (For the effects  of a riverine EA scheme in 2022 see this BBC Interview)

Some of the trees that will be lost within and beside the Oxford meadows
The Willow Walk, the path by Hinksey Meadow
The EA’s proposed replacement for Willow Walk

What can be done? Objectors have secured a Public Enquiry into the scheme. The Enquiry opens 10 am on Tuesday 14 November 2023 for a month at The King’s Centre, Osney Mead, Oxford OX2 0ES (walkable from the railway station).  FIND US | The King’s Centre (kingscentre.co.uk)

You can

1. Support the Public Enquiry by joining a peaceful demonstration 10am on 14th November outside the King’s Centre entrance. Feel free to bring your own signs and banners. Please do get in contact at the email below if you would like to come on the 14th.

2. Sign the petition to Save Hinksey Meadow

3. Spread the word! And if you know people who might be able and willing to contribute to the defence of the meadow, direct them to the Go fund me page

References and more information

Any questions to Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, FMAA
SCR Associate St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford
Thomas F. X. and Theresa Mullarkey Chair in Literature (Emerita), Fordham University
olim Professor of Medieval Literature, University of York

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