Vegetation: Meadow species and communities

© Mike Dodd

Vegetation: Meadow species and communities


Meadows are communities of perennial grasses and herbs, formed under regular hay making, which prevents the growth of trees and shrubs. The National Vegetation Classification, editted by John Rodwell (1992) is now widely used to label vegetation in the UK. On floodplains, the most species-rich plant communities are the three meadow communities: MG4 (Meadow Foxtail – Great Burnet), MG8 (Crested Dog’s tail – Marsh Marigold), and MG5 (Crested Dog’s tail - Common Knapweed). Plant communities arrange themselves along topographical, hydrological and nutrient gradients, often forming a shifting mosaic in the dynamic environment of a floodplain.

Plant species occurring in meadows are adapted to the annual removal of above-ground biomass. Perennial rhizomes, bulbs and taproots ensure regrowth of the species, even if seeds are not regularly produced. More than 200 species from over 20 plant families form diverse communities, which share resources both above and below ground (link to Shoot-to-Root diagram). A meadow supports a balance of species from Grime's three functional types (competitors, stress tolerators and ruderals.)   This high diversity of traits is important for sustaining vegetation in such a dynamic and unpredictable environment.

Methods - botanical surveys and data analysis

Botanical surveys are carried out on 1 x 1 m quadrats placed randomly or on a grid pattern. Locations are recorded with differential GPS, which allows both reliable relocation of the samples and  accurate topographical data for hydrological analyses.

NVC communities are mapped by recording data from botanical quadrats located in different vegetation stands, the borders between which are mapped with GPS.

Data analyses are carried out using a variety of software tools including "R",VESPAN,  JUICE, MATCH and MAVIS software. 
Population surveys of individual plant species, such as snake's-head fritillary, are studied using 1 x 1 m quadrats subdivided into  a 10 x 10 cm grid, with individual shoots being recorded and measured annually. 

Research aims

  1. To monitor the distribution of plant communities in order to describe their temporal and spatial dynamics.
  2. To analyse Botanical data with respect to patterns of nutrients, water regime, and vegetation management on floodplains.
  3. To study individual species in terms of their population biology to inform management. either for their conservation or control.
  4. To steward botanical data, in a secure and accessible form, such that researchers from any area can use them to test their theories. (link to the online database page).
Our publications

Prosser, Michael V., Wallace, Hilary L. and Gowing, David J.G. (2023) Phytosociology informs the conservation of species-rich meadows in hydrologically dynamic habitats: an example from British floodplains in a wider European context. British and Irish Botany.(in press).

JP021 edition 1 -  A review of the NVC for the Calthion group of plant communities

Tatarenko, Irina; Walker, Kevin and Dyson, Miranda (2022). Biological Flora of Britain and Ireland: Fritillaria meleagris. Journal of Ecology, 110(7) pp. 1704–1726.

Tatarenko, Irina; Dodd, Michael; Wallace, Hilary; Bellamy, Graham and Fleckney, Andy (2020). Protecting small populations of rare species. Case study on dactylorhiza viridis (orchidaceae) in Fancott Woods and Meadows SSSI, Bedfordshire, UK. Nature Conservation Research, 5(Suppl.1)

Tatarenko, I. (2019). Having a break: Prolonged dormancy observed in a rare species, Fritillaria meleagris. Environment and Human: Ecological Studies, 9(3) pp. 302–324.

Punalekar, Survarna; Verhoef, Anne; Tatarenko, Irina V.; van der Tol, Christiaan; Macdonald, David M.J.; Marchant, Benjamin; Gerard, France; White, Kevin and Gowing, David (2016). Characterization of a Highly Biodiverse Floodplain Meadow Using Hyperspectral Remote Sensing within a Plant Functional Trait Framework. Remote Sensing, 8(2) p. 112.

Bischoff, Armin; Cremieux, Lisèle; Smilauerova, Marie; Lawson, Clare S.; Mortimer, Simon R.; Dolezal, Jiri; Lanta, Vojtech; Edwards, Andrew R.; Brook, Alex J.; Macel, Mirka; Leps, Jan; Steinger, Thomas and Müller-Schärer, Heinz (2006). Detecting local adaptation in widespread grassland species - the importance of scale and local plant community. Journal of Ecology, 94(6) pp. 1130–1142.

Bezemer, T. Martin; Lawson, Clare S.; Hedlund, Katarina; Edwards, Andrew R.; Brook, Alex J.; Igual, José M.; Mortimer, Simon R. and van der Putten, Wim H. (2006). Plant species and functional group effects on abiotic and microbial soil properties and plant-soil feedback responses in two grasslands. Journal of Ecology, 94(5) pp. 893–904.

Gowing, D.J.G. (2006)  The importance of hydrological regime for the meadow plant communities of seasonally flooded grassland.  In: Land Use, Ecology and Conservation in the Lower Derwent Valley. Ed. T. Milsom.  PLACE, York.

Gowing, D.J.G. and Spoor, G. (1998).  The effect of water table depth on the distribution of plant species in lowland wet grassland. In: UK Floodplains.  Eds R Bailey, P Jose and B Sherwood. Westbury. pp. 185-196.

Gowing, D.J.G. and Youngs, E.G. (1997).  The effect of the hydrology of a Thames flood meadow on its vegetation. In: Floodplain Rivers: hydrological processes and ecological significance (ed. A.R.G. Large).  British Hydrological Society occasional paper No.8, pp 69-80.

Gowing, D.J.G. and Youngs, E.G. (2005) The requirements of Apium repens – an ecohydrological assessment. Report to the Environment Agency (Thames Region), Reading.

Wheeler, B.D., Gowing, D.J.G., Shaw, S.C., Mountford, J.O. and Money, R.P. (2004) Ecohydrological guidelines for lowland wetland plant communities (Eds. Brooks, A.W., Jose, P.V. and Whiteman, M.I.) Environment Agency (Anglian Region), Peterborough.

Gowing, D.J.G., Lawson, C.S., Youngs, E.G., Barber, K.R., Prosser, M.V., Wallace, H., Rodwell, J.S., Mountford, J.O. and Spoor, G. (2002). The water-regime requirements and the response to hydrological change of grassland plant communities.  Final report to DEFRA (Conservation Management Division,) London.  Project BD1310.

Michalcova D., Gilbert J.C., Lawson C.S., Gowing, D.J.G. and Marrs R.H. (2011) The combined effect of waterlogging, extractable P and soil pH on alpha-diversity: a case study on mesotrophic grasslands in the UK. Plant Ecology, 212, 879-888.

Bartelheimer, M., Gowing, D.J.G., Silvertown, J. (2010)  Explaining hydrological niches: the decisive role of below-ground competition in two closely related Senecio species.  Journal of Ecology, 98, 126-136

Silvertown, J. Dodd, M. and Gowing,D.J.G. (2001). Phylogeny and niche structure of meadow plant communities.  Journal of Ecology, 89, 428-435.


Image of plant communities in a meadow at Cricklade
Plant communities at Cricklade © Mike Dodd