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Suburban Rewilding: Cox's Meadow Cheltenham
LettsSafari explores Cox's Meadow: A two decade old wildland and wetland just outside of Cheltenham's town centre.
In the large Cotswold’s town of Cheltenham sits a unique example of efficient and pragmatic rewilding. Cox’s Meadow is a reclaimed wildland, wetland and parkland that has helped protect the town as a whole from flood risks. It is an example of pragmatic rewilding and making the best of the environment and habitats that you have.
The major feature of Cox’s Meadow is it’s flood plain. The meadow itself is an intentional bowl shape, meaning it can be a safe area for water to pool, with high banks that hold water within as it rises. This means that the centre of the pool is a nutrient rich, water run-off habitat. As can be seen in various LettsSafari parks and gardens, this is an incredibly useful feature that drives over-charged plant growth and biodiversity.
Within the centre of Cox’s Meadow is a rich run of brush, bush and shrubbery. Reeds and butterfly bush thrive, along with nettle, foxglove, taller wildflowers and even high, silver trees. The biodiversity lends to wonderful sounds and smells, with a walk through the centre of the bowl possible by a small bridge. It is impossible to wander through this area and not run into birds, bees and all kinds of insects.
The water-driven, highly dense natural vegetation at Cox’s Meadow recalls, on a miniature scale, the early discoveries at Yellowstone Park. At Yellowstone, the introduction of the Canadian wolf rebalanced the deer population allowing a natural regrowth of habitat (destroyed by overuse of the deer) including increasing and restoring the prevalence and size of wet habitats. At Cox’s Meadow, the flood prevention system, highlights the power of smaller-scale rewilding on just a handful of acres.
The bowl of the meadow is not the only space with thriving growth though, along the south bank is an area of wilded grasses and weeds, allowed to mature and seed without intervention. This creates a valuable buffer between the bowl itself and those who would be walking around the meadow, helping to create a natural separation between the core rewilding sections and places for human interaction.
Further along the edges and sides of the meadow is even more wild growth. Wilder green spaces are saved for bracken and thick shrubs to thrive, away from the most active areas of human activity.
These kinds of plants create a core and essential habitat for small mammals and other animals with wildlife friendly corridors and cover, but is nevertheless often neglected in public parks as the weeds can be painful and disruptive for walkers. But placing them along the edges of the meadow, away from the pathways along the crest of the bowl, humans naturally avoid that space and allow for more creative rewilding approaches.
The meadow is not totally dedicated to rewilding. Rather, Cox’s Meadow takes a mixed and pragmatic approach to its space, keeping mowed and maintained areas that are great for dog walkers, picnics or children playing. While this is obviously a compromise on a wider rewilding approach, in this case it is justified for a number of reasons.
Firstly, by creating these obvious separate spaces of wild and human areas, it keeps wandering humans from trampling growth and dedicated wild spaces, wrecking the young insect, animal or plant life trying to establish communities in those wild habitats. Further, it creates the appeal of a space that can be enjoyed by the common public as well. This means that the meadow can serve the typical function of a public park, a space for the community to come, enjoy nature, and see the benefits of a rewilded place near their homes.
Towards the rear of the park is the most thickly rewilded part, with dense runs of bramble and tall grasses. It also includes sectioned off areas, with fencing and signs to keep wandering people out and new trees safely growing. Towards the very back of the park is a small, shallow brook, that feeds into the river Chelt running through Cheltenham, and creates a wild habitat that would be harder to develop without its waterways coming through.
It is this babbling brook that can turn into a surging torrent of water running off the hills around Cheltenham whenever a thunderstorm takes place. It is in these moments that the bowl of the meadow serves its greatest purpose, becoming the last line of defence for the town, able to hold as much as 74,000 cubic metres of water. It will do this until the water flow has slowed enough for the meadow lake to then drain back into the River Chelt, ensuring it does not burst its banks and can slowly carry the excess flow away slowly.
Overall, the wet meadow offers a unique perspective on rewilding projects. It takes advantage of all the elements on offer to it, unique waterways, an unusual landscape, and a community collective space in order to create a rewilding meadow that can protect Cheltenham both by arresting declines in biodiversity and animal life, but also arresting water damage and flooding.
Not many places have the opportunity to serve dual roles as flood plains and public parks, especially in busy towns like Cheltenham, so a unique space like this being used in such a wild way is a true gem to behold. It is perhaps one we should all learn from as climate change expands the extreme flooding events across the UK.
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