The River Avon is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for its flora and fauna. The valley is designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) for wintering wildfowl, and much of the valley is also an SSSI for its wet grassland flora and fauna. The river floodplain is one of the largest areas of agriculturally managed, unimproved wet grassland in Britain. The wildlife is heavily dependent on grazing and/or cutting to maintain suitable conditions.
Traditionally the River Avon’s aquatic plants have been cut in late spring or early summer to control the build up of vegetation that would prevent free water flows and increase river levels. The Environment Agency stopped this cutting in 2010. This, and the potential effects of climate change, are expected to increase the wetness of the fields in summer. This is likely to affect their ecology, management and any associated farming regimes and enterprises.
The farming community is concerned that these changes are going to make farming more difficult and conservation interests are concerned that less active farming will result in declines in wildlife.
These concerns led Natural England (NE) to commission a study from consultants Footprint Ecology, to investigate the likely effects of wetter conditions in the valley on the economics and practicalities of grass farming; and to suggest ways in which the farming community can adapt to the predicted changes. The consultants’ findings are based on a number of farm visits, in-depth interviews with individual farmers and discussions with the National Farmers Union (NFU), EA, NE and others. The findings include a description of these discussions and investigations and also consider water and land management issues, livestock and marketing options and potential ways to manage the transition to wetter conditions.