My Freshwater Habitat: Ellie MacDonald, Oxey Mead
21st December 2023
Ellie MacDonald is our Floodplain Conservation Officer for the Oxfordshire–Buckinghamshire Freshwater Network. The project focuses on the role of smaller, peat-dominated wetlands, floodplains, wet grasslands and small waters in sequestering carbon in the landscape. Through habitat creation and restoration, it is also helping us to build the Freshwater Network – a national network of wilder, wetter, cleaner and connected freshwaters.
For her My Freshwater Habitat Blog Ellie shares a habitat that has inspired her professional work and her personal life through art.
How did you first get into your career in nature conservation?
I first joined Freshwater Habitats Trust in February 2022 as a trainee project officer working on the Building Oxfordshire’s Freshwater Network project. This was my first job in nature conservation. Before this I’d completed my MSc in Conservation and Biodiversity whilst also volunteering with local wildlife charities. In April 2023 I started my current role as the floodplain conservation officer, covering the conservation and restoration of historic floodplain habitats in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.
Why are you interested in nature?
My interest in ecology and nature has always been angled towards plants. The diversity of plant life across the different habitats of the UK and the ability of these organisms to, by their mere existence, provide and support life is fascinating. My main research interest before joining Freshwater Habitats Trust was around the carbon storage potential of different ecosystems (woodlands and seagrass meadows). This has fed into my professional career where I now work to restore and protect freshwater habitats for biodiversity and for their ability to store carbon and mitigate against climate change. In my roles at Freshwater Habitats Trust I have benefitted greatly from training opportunities, and I have especially enjoyed the plant identification courses and vegetation monitoring. I value being able to expand my knowledge of wetland plants and use this to inform restoration and conservation of freshwater habitats.
I also learn from the natural world outside of my professional life, where in my free time I create art pieces, and recently I have taken inspiration from the floodplain habitats that I have been working in. By learning new wetland species, I have had to focus on the shapes and features of these plants and have found that transferring this to painting and printing using brushstrokes and carving is not only enjoyable, but useful for cementing this knowledge.
What freshwater habitat inspires you the most?
I have chosen Oxey Mead Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) – a Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) ancient floodplain meadow that forms part of the Oxford Meadows Special Area of Conservation (SAC) which is of European importance for its special vegetation communities. Although this may not sound like it relates to freshwater these floodplain meadows are very important freshwater habitats. Floodplains are important freshwater habitats formed of low-lying land adjacent to rivers that flood seasonally. The meadow areas that are found on floodplains can be very species-rich thanks to the natural disturbance that seasonal flooding provides, from the nutrients provided by flood water, and disturbance provided by the traditional management practices of grazing and hay making. In the past these habitats would have been found much more numerously across the UK and would have been managed in a way that led to areas of high plant and insect diversity.
What makes Oxey Mead so special?
I first visited Oxford Meadows SAC as part of the Floodplain Meadow Partnership conference in May 2023, prior to which I had read about these sites in the Floodplain Meadows Partnership Handbook, but to visit in person was an inspiring moment for me.
This was the first really spectacular floodplain meadow that I have seen, and, in this visit, I noticed how diverse the area was compared to other floodplain grasslands I have explored. The vegetation composition was quite different to any areas I’ve seen before, with more broadleaved species relative to grasses, making the vegetation thick with leaves and flowers. The second time I visited, in July 2023, I went specifically to Oxey Mead SSSI to see the plants when they were all in flower. I was blown away by the array of colours, the variety of species, and the sheer density of the flower heads. The light during the visit helped to emphasise the colours- some of which I’d never seen before in such richness in one habitat. The smell as well made the whole experience very immersive. There were so many species to enjoy including Devil’s Bit scabious, Great Burnet, Saw-wort, Sneezewort, Betony, and so many more. Saw-wort is a cool plant as I think it looks a bit like a dragon egg – its purple phyllaries on the involucre make it look scaly, and when it is closed (before flower opens) it looks like an egg.
What threats do these habitats face?
Floodplains are threatened by factors that many freshwater habitats face including nutrient pollution, poor water quality, lack of appropriate management, drainage, climate change (erratic flooding and drought), land-use change and more. No floodplain habitat is truly safe from these threats, with the poor condition of surrounding water, land, and air, putting pressure on all floodplains at some level.
In the UK, there are now less than 1,500 hectares of diverse floodplain meadow habitat, and the Oxford Meadows SAC and the SSSIs within form an important part of this total area.
How is your work helping these habitats?
We are working on projects to restore and protect floodplain habitats whilst also learning from our own experiences and those of our partners so we can best protect and restore floodplain habitats. I am hopeful that these efforts will help improve floodplain habitat condition so that they are better for biodiversity and more resilient to future changes.
Creating, enhancing, and restoring these habitats is an important part of my role. You can find out more in this article about floodplain restoration. This site really cemented that restoring these special places was the right thing to do through my work with Freshwater Habitats Trust, and really showcases what is possible and what we’ve lost. My work through the Oxfordshire Buckinghamshire Freshwater Network will help connect more of these sites and species.
How people see and access these sites, and make a difference?
By getting involved in the Growet project people can help us grow some of these rare plants and help them colonise new sites.
One of the best times to visit floodplain meadows is when they are flowering from mid to late April-September. Hay meadows will mostly be cut around June-July, so heading to them before this time gives you the best chance of seeing them in full bloom. There are many floodplain meadows around Oxfordshire and some of the best examples are found within the Oxford Meadows SAC around the NW of Oxford, including several nature reserves.
For information on floodplain sites around the UK, the Floodplain Meadows Partnership have great resources on their website, including this map. You can also find out more about floodplain sites in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire on the BBOWT website.