We have lots of meadows and grasslands scattered over our lakes and reservoirs in the South West and we’d like to tell you more about their importance and how we manage them.

Meadows are a priority habitat and are key to many priority species. They are some of our most biodiverse habitats on our sites and our visitors love them just as much as the animals and plants we find on them.

Meadows provide many essential elements for our native plants and animals. For example, they have flowers for our pollinators such as insects, are home and foraging ground to mammals such as voles and bats, they act as a seed food sources for birds like the goldfinch and have the perfect soil type for some orchids like the common spotted orchid.

Did you know that only 2-3% of the meadows that existed in the 1930’s remains today? (Ref: Magnificent Meadows and Plant Life)

As one of the habitats in decline in the UK and with more being lost and managed unfavourably, we aim to protect our meadows. With just 1% of the UK remaining as wildflower meadows, we know the meadows at our lakes and reservoirs are so important to nature and people (ref: National Trust).

If those staggering figures weren’t enough, nearly 1,400 species of pollinators and other insects rely on meadow plants for their survival (Ref: Plant Life). So, if our meadows are struggling so will all the species that rely on them to complete their life cycle.

Some of our best meadows (and my favourites) are at Roadford Lake. They are filled with pinks of knapweeds, yellows of bird foot trefoils, whites of daisies, red of docks and greens of grasses. Hovering above the meadows are butterflies and bats. The butterflies sip nectar and lay eggs and the bats come alive in the night to feast on moths and beetles. Within the maze of grasses are caterpillars and spiders and in the soil are the underground lovers of worms and moles. A whole ecosystem no more than 1 meter tall (above ground that is, imagine the network of fungi below ground!) but full of life. Meadows also store carbon and water! 

At Roadford Lake we manage most of our meadows in a traditional way, as hay meadows. We rarely use grazing animals at our sites as most of our meadows are close to the reservoirs and for animal safety and to protect our drinking water we don’t allow this. Instead we use a method which cuts, turns and bales the grasses and flowers to form hay. We do this in summer between Mid-July and September. This meadow management is done by our Rangers in house with our mini baler or by contractors or by local farmers. 

We know that any meadows can look ugly and somewhat destroyed when they are cut but we promise that this keeps them healthy. We get many of our visitors asking us why we have cut our beautiful meadows and our answer is without cutting, the meadows will soon become dominant in grasses (not flowers as the grasses will eventually out compete them) and become pickled with regenerating trees like willow and scrub like bramble. Over a long period the meadows will become scrub and then woodland and lost all together. There is more information on how to manage a meadow here - Plant Life .

Not all of the grasslands we have at our lakes and reservoirs are meadows or rich flowery grasslands. Some of our grassy areas are cut often and these are usually around amenity areas such as car parks, picnic areas, playgrounds and campsites. Although, we do strive to create places for people and nature so you may see our half and half approach to grass cutting at some of our lakes. This leaves half short and sweet for people and half long and luscious for nature.

Some of the grassy areas at our lakes are cut by our partners at South West WaterSouth West Water usually cut the dam faces and some of the areas below the dams. You will see this being done at any time of year and in many cases it relates to health and safety and dam inspections. Some plants, if left and not cut, like trees and scrub, can start to root into the dam structures. South West Water say:

Embankment dams hold back a significant weight of water, and if there is a leak through the watertight core it needs to be seen, as soon as possible. The sooner any seepage is noticed the quicker it can be investigated and corrective action can be taken. If the grass is long and uncut it will be more difficult to notice the early signs of a problem developing. Short grass aids out early warning and detection systems.

Dam inspections are carried out by independent qualified civil engineers who give us direction as to the required maintenance and surveillance regimes to ensure the safety of people living downstream. This is all part of the Reservoirs Act, 1975.

Sometimes our open grassy habitats need a bit of help too, to become richer and more biodiverse. The large grassy area around our community orchard and near to the activity centre at Wimbleball Lake have been enhanced and are now both managed as hay meadows. In 2017, we prepared the ground by creating exposed soil and then sprinkled the areas with yellow rattle seed which we collected elsewhere from site. Yellow rattle is a parasite plant to grasses which means that the meadow flowers have less competition with grasses and are able to flourish. With a little bit of help and good management this meadow is now flourishing and bouncing with pollinators.

Senior Environment and Engagement Ranger Lucy, who has been managing the meadows at Wimbleball said:

The meadows at Wimbleball Lake are looking great and with the help from our fantastic team of volunteers who have supported the management of the area in recent years, we have seen a new range of wild flowers and more insects like butterflies enjoying them; the marbled white butterfly in particular has been a frequent visitor this season. We know we still have a way to go for the entire meadow to be rich in flowers but we are confident with the new baling equipment we have, this will be achieved in the not too distant future.” 

We have meadows and gorgeous grasslands that you can visit in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset. My favourites are at Roadford Lake (can be seen if you walk from the café to the sundial), Porth Reservoir (can be seen from the car park), Fernworthy Reservoir (can be seen on the round reservoir walk) and Wimbleball Lake (can be seen between the office and the sailing club).


Emma Scotney

SW Lakes Ecologist