, Volume 35, Issue 2, pp 263–279 | Cite as

Hydroperiod and Traditional Farming Practices Drive Plant Community Composition on Unregulated Atlantic Floodplain Meadows

  • Caitriona Maher
  • Micheline Sheehy Skeffington
  • Michael Gormally
Original Research


The River Shannon, Ireland, among the last unregulated rivers in western Europe, has extensive floodplains and supports rare and endangered species and habitats, of ecological and cultural importance. Unregulated floodplains result in community composition responding directly to natural fluctuations in water level. This study assesses how hydrological factors and farming practices effect flood meadow plant communities. Three main plant communities were identified, forming an uninterrupted ecotone, along a gradient of dry to wet. Habitats of European conservation interest (Lowland Hay Meadows and Molinia Meadows) were well represented. Hydroperiod, calculated using microtopographical measurements, was the primary factor determining community composition and was negatively correlated with elevation and plant species richness. The botanical continuum comprised a range of insect-pollinated species, demonstrating the role of floodplains in providing pollinator services. Climate change projections indicate more prolonged winter flooding in the future, signifying potential range shifts for these plant species and communities; highlighting the need for appropriate conservation measures in the surrounding landscape. Low-intensity farming practices, with minimal fertiliser use and regular hay-mowing, played an essential, secondary role in maintaining plant species diversity. Retaining the floodplain topography, its associated hydrological regime and low-intensity farming practices, are necessary to maintain species diversity and ecosystem services.


Cultural landscape Ecohydrology Ecosystem services Habitat conservation Hay meadows Hydrological integrity Low-intensity farming practices Low-nutrient system Mowing Species richness 



This project was funded by the Irish Research Council Science Engineering & Technology (IRCSET) under the Embark Initiative and in part by the NUI Galway, Thomas Crawford Hayes Trust Fund. The authors acknowledge support of the HEA under PRTLI4 for licensing OSI Digital Imagery through the Ryan Institute, NUI Galway. Ordinance Survey Ireland data is included under OSi licence number NUIG220212. Unauthorised reproduction infringes Ordinance Survey Ireland and Government of Ireland copyright. © Ordinance Survey Ireland, 2013. The authors acknowledge the Office of Public Works (OPW) and Electricity Supply Board (ESB) for providing river level data. The authors also acknowledge BirdWatch Ireland for providing assistance. The authors offer very special thanks to the farmers of the callows, for allowing access to their land, giving generously of their time and providing information on their farming practice. We are also grateful to Noel Bugler, David Gowing, Stephen Heery, and Christopher Williams for their help and advice during the research and to two reviewers for their very helpful and constructive comments on an earlier MS.


  1. Aarts BG, van den Brink FW, Nienhuis PH (2004) Habitat loss as the main cause of the slow recovery of fish faunas of regulated large rivers in Europe: the transversal floodplain gradient. River Research and Applications 20:3–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bakker JP, Berendse F (1999) Constraints in the restoration of ecological diversity in grassland and heathland communities. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 14:63–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bakker JP, Elzinga JA, de Vries Y (2002) Effects of long-term cutting in a grassland system: perspectives for restoration of plant communities on nutrient-poor soils. Applied Vegetation Science 5:107–120Google Scholar
  4. Biesmeijer J, Roberts S, Reemer M, Ohlemüller R, Edwards M, Peeters T, Schaffers A, Potts S, Kleukers R, Thomas C (2006) Parallel declines in pollinators and insect-pollinated plants in Britain and the Netherlands. Science 313:351–354CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Bignal EM, McCracken DI (1996) Low-intensity farming systems in the conservation of the countryside. Journal of Applied Ecology 33:413–424CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Blom C (1999) Adaptations to flooding stress: from plant community to molecule. Plant Biology 1:261–273CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bouraoui F, Grizzetti B, Aloe A (2009) Nutrient discharge from rivers to seas for year 2000. Joint Research Centre, European Commission, BrusselsGoogle Scholar
  8. Brennan C (2006) River Shannon and Errina and Park Canals: final ecology report to the Heritage Council. Waterway Corridor Study, DublinGoogle Scholar
  9. Carvell C, Roy DB, Smart SM, Pywell RF, Preston CD, Goulson D (2006) Declines in forage availability for bumblebees at a national scale. Biological Conservation 132:481–489CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Casanova MT, Brock MA (2000) How do depth, duration and frequency of flooding influence the establishment of wetland plant communities? Plant Ecology 147:237–250CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Charlton R, Fealy R, Moore S, Sweeney J, Murphy C (2006) Assessing the impact of climate change on water supply and flood hazard in Ireland using statistical downscaling and hydrological modelling techniques. Climatic Change 74:475–491CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cizek O, Zamecnik J, Tropek R, Kocarek P, Konvicka M (2012) Diversification of mowing regime increases arthropods diversity in species-poor cultural hay meadows. Journal of Insect Conservation 16:215–226CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Clapham AR, Tutin TG, Moore DM (1987) Flora of the British Isles. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  14. Cop J, Vidrih M, Hacin J (2009) Influence of cutting regime and fertilizer application on the botanical composition, yield and nutritive value of herbage of wet grasslands in Central Europe. Grass and Forage Science 64:454–465CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Crawford RMM (1989) Studies in plant survival. Ecological case histories of plant adaptations to adversity. Blackwell Scientific Publications, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  16. Díaz S, Cabido M (2001) Vive la différence: plant functional diversity matters to ecosystem processes. Trends in Ecology & Evolution (Personal Edition) 16:646–655CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Dufrêne M, Legendre P (1997) Species assemblages and indicator species: the need for a flexible asymmetrical approach. Ecological Monographs 67:345–366Google Scholar
  18. Edwards AR, Mortimer SR, Lawson CS, Westbury DB, Harris SJ, Woodcock BA, Brown VK (2007) Hay strewing, brush harvesting of seed and soil disturbance as tools for the enhancement of botanical diversity in grasslands. Biological Conservation 134:372–382CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fossitt JA (2000) A guide to habitats in Ireland. The Heritage Council/An Chomhairle Oidhreachta, KilkennyGoogle Scholar
  20. Gerard M, El Kahloun M, Rymen J, Beauchard O, Meire P (2008) Importance of mowing and flood frequency in promoting species richness in restored floodplains. Journal of Applied Ecology 45:1780–1789CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Goodwillie RN (2003) Vegetation of turloughs. In: Otte ML (ed) Wetlands of Ireland: Distribution, ecology, uses and economic value. University College Dublin Press, Dublin, pp 135–144Google Scholar
  22. Gowing DJG, Lawson CS, Youngs EG, Barber KR, Prosser MV, Wallace H, Rodwell JS, Mountford JO, Spoor G (2002) The water-regime requirements and the response to hydrological change of grassland plant communities. Project BD1310. Final report to DEFRA (Conservation Management Division), LondonGoogle Scholar
  23. Grévilliot F, Krebs L, Muller S (1998) Comparative importance and interference of hydrological conditions and soil nutrient gradients in floristic biodiversity in flood meadows. Biodiversity and Conservation 7:1495–1520CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Grime JP, Hodgson JG, Hunt R (2007) Comparative plant ecology: a functional approach to common British species, 2nd edn. Unwin Hyman Ltd, LondonGoogle Scholar
  25. Grizzetti B, Bouraoui F, Aloe A (2012) Changes of nitrogen and phosphorus loads to European seas. Global Change Biology 18:769–782CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Heery S (1991) The plant communities of the grazed and mown grasslands of the River Shannon Callows. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 91B:1–19Google Scholar
  27. Heery S (1993) The Shannon Floodlands: a natural history of the Shannon Callows. Tír Eolas, KinvaraGoogle Scholar
  28. Heery S (1995) Flooding in spring on the Callows at Shannon Harbour, 1961–94. Biology and environment. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 91B:172–179Google Scholar
  29. Heery S (2003) Callows and floodplains. In: Otte ML (ed) Wetlands of Ireland. Distribution, ecology, uses and economic value. University College Dublin Press, Dublin, pp 109–123Google Scholar
  30. Hegland SJ, Boeke L (2006) Relationships between the density and diversity of floral resources and flower visitor activity in a temperate grassland community. Ecological Entomology 31:532–538CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hickey K (2010) Deluge: Ireland’s weather disasters 2009–2010. Open Air Press, DublinGoogle Scholar
  32. Hill MO, Roy DB, Mountford JO, Bunce RG (2001) Extending Ellenberg’s indicator values to a new area: an algorithmic approach. Journal of Applied Ecology 37:3–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hooijer A (1996) Floodplain hydrology: an ecologically oriented study of the Shannon Callows. Ireland. Published PhD Thesis, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The NetherlandsGoogle Scholar
  34. Hopkins A, Holz B (2006) Grassland for agriculture and nature conservation: production, quality and multi-functionality. Agronomy Research 4:3–20Google Scholar
  35. Humbert JY, Ghazoul J, Richner N, Walter T (2010) Hay harvesting causes high orthopteran mortality. Agriculture Ecosystems & Environment 139:522–527CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Humbert JY, Ghazoul J, Walter T (2009) Meadow harvesting techniques and their impacts on field fauna. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment 130:1–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Hwang T, Band L, Hales T (2009) Ecosystem processes at the watershed scale: extending optimality theory from plot to catchment. Water Resources Research 45:W11425CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Johansson ME, Nilsson C, Nilsson E (1996) Do rivers function as corridors for plant dispersal? Journal of Vegetation Science 7:593–598CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Joyce C (2001) The sensitivity of a species-rich flood-meadow plant community to fertilizer nitrogen: the Luznice river floodplain, Czech Republic. Plant Ecology 155:47–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Jung V, Hoffmann L, Muller S (2009) Ecophysiological responses of nine floodplain meadow species to changing hydrological conditions. Plant Ecology 201:589–598CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kilroy G, Coxon C, Ryan J, O’Connor Á, Daly D (2005) Groundwater and wetland management in the Shannon river basin (Ireland). Environmental Science & Policy 8:219–225CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Klaus VH, Kleinebecker T, Boch S, Müller J, Socher SA, Prati D, Fischer M, Hölzel N (2012) NIRS meets Ellenberg’s indicator values: prediction of moisture and nitrogen values of agricultural grassland vegetation by means of near-infrared spectral characteristics. Ecological Indicators 14:82–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Luo WB, Song FB, Xie YH (2008) Trade-off between tolerance to drought and tolerance to flooding in three wetland plants. Wetlands 28:866–873CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Magurran AE (2004) Measuring biological diversity. Blackwell, LondonGoogle Scholar
  45. Maher C, Gormally M, Williams C, Sheehy Skeffington M (2014) Atlantic floodplain meadows: influence of hydrological gradients and management on sciomyzid (Diptera) assemblages. Journal of Insect Conservation 1–16Google Scholar
  46. Maher CA (2013) The River Shannon Callows, Ireland: an examination of how flooding patterns and farming practices affect plant communities and dipteran assemblages on unregulated floodplain meadows. PhD, National University of Ireland Galway, GalwayGoogle Scholar
  47. Martin J, O’Neill F (2013) Report on the main results of the surveillance under article 17 for annex I habitat types (Annex D). National Parks and Wildlife Service, DublinGoogle Scholar
  48. McCune B, Mefford MJ (1999) PC-ORD. Multivariate Analysis of Ecological Data, Version 4. MjM Software Design, Gleneden Beach, OR, USA. 237ppGoogle Scholar
  49. McCune B, Grace JB (2002) Analysis of ecological communities. MjM Software Design, OregonGoogle Scholar
  50. Mills G (2001) Ireland’s water budget—model validation and a greenhouse experiment. Irish Geography 34:124–134CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Mountford JO, Lakhani KH, Kirkham FW (1993) Experimental assessment of the effects of nitrogen addition under hay-cutting and aftermath grazing on the vegetation of meadows on a Somerset peat moor. Journal of Applied Ecology 30:321–332CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Muller S (2002) Diversity of management practices required to ensure conservation of rare and locally threatened plant species in grasslands: a case study at a regional scale (Lorraine, France). Biodiversity and Conservation 11:1173–1184CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Naiman RJ, Decamps H, Pollock M (1993) The role of riparian corridors in maintaining regional biodiversity. Ecological Applications 3:209–212CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Nairn RGW, Herbert IJ, Heery S (1988) Breeding waders and other wet grassland birds of the River Shannon Callows, Ireland. Irish Birds 3:521–538Google Scholar
  55. Noordijk J, Delille K, Schaffers AP, Sýkora KV (2009) Optimizing grassland management for flower-visiting insects in roadside verges. Biological Conservation 142:2097–2103CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. NPWS (2008) The status of EU protected habitats and species in Ireland. National Parks and Wildlife Service, DublinGoogle Scholar
  57. NPWS (2011) Conservation objectives for River Shannon Callows SAC [000216]. National Parks and Wildlife Service, DublinGoogle Scholar
  58. Oelmann Y, Broll G, Hölzel N, Kleinebecker T, Vogel A, Schwartze P (2009) Nutrient impoverishment and limitation of productivity after 20 years of conservation management in wet grasslands of north-western Germany. Biological Conservation 142:2941–2948CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Perrin PM, Martin JR, Barron SJ, Roche JR (2006) A cluster analysis approach to classifying Irish native woodlands. Biology & Environment: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 106B:261–275Google Scholar
  60. Pfister L, Kwadijk J, Musy A, Bronstert A, Hoffmann L (2004) Climate change, land use change and runoff prediction in the Rhine–Meuse basins. River Research and Applications 20:229–241CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Pollock MM, Naiman RJ, Hanley TA (1998) Plant species richness in riparian wetlands—a test of biodiversity theory. Ecology 79:94–105Google Scholar
  62. Ryder C, Moran J, Mc Donnell R, Gormally M (2005) Conservation implications of grazing practices on the plant and dipteran communities of a turlough in Co. Mayo, Ireland. Biodiversity and Conservation 14:187–204CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Sheehy Skeffington M, Moran J, OConnor A, Regan E, Coxon CE, Scott NE, Gormally M (2006) Turloughs - Ireland’s unique wetland habitat. Biological Conservation 133:265–290CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Spink A, Sparks RE, Van Oorschot M, Verhoeven JT (1998) Nutrient dynamics of large river floodplains. Regulated Rivers: Research and Management 14:203–216CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. SRBD (2003) Shannon river basin management project. Current management of water levels River Shannon. Shannon River Basin District, LimerickGoogle Scholar
  66. Stace C (2010) New flora of the British isles, 3rd edn. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  67. Steele-Dunne S, Lynch P, McGrath R, Semmler T, Wang S, Hanafin J, Nolan P (2008) The impacts of climate change on hydrology in Ireland. Journal of Hydrology 356:28–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Stephens CJ, Dise NB, Mountford JO, Gowing DJ (2004) Impact of nitrogen deposition on the species richness of grasslands. Science 303:1876–1879CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Sweeney K, Fealy R, McElwain L, Siggins L, Sweeney J, Trinies V (2008) Changing shades of green: the environmental and cultural impacts of climate change in Ireland. Irish American Climate Project, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  70. Tockner K, Uehlinger U, Robinson C, Tonolla D, Siber R, Peter F (2009) Introduction to European rivers. In: Tockner K, Robinson C, Uehlinger U (eds) Rivers of Europe. Academic, LondonGoogle Scholar
  71. Tol RS, Langen A (2000) A concise history of Dutch river floods. Climatic Change 46:357–369CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Wassen MJ, Peeters WHM, Venterink HO (2003) Patterns in vegetation, hydrology, and nutrient availability in an undisturbed river floodplain in Poland. Plant Ecology 165:27–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Wesche K, Krause B, Culmsee H, Leuschner C (2012) Fifty years of change in Central European grassland vegetation: large losses in species richness and animal-pollinated plants. Biological Conservation 150:76–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Williams CD, Beltman B, Moran J, Sheehy Skeffington M, Gormally MJ (2011) Empirical support for the possible application of modified Ellenberg indices to the study of environmental gradients on dynamic Irish wetlands—evidence from Skealoghan turlough, County Mayo. Biology & Environment: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 111B:19–31Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Society of Wetland Scientists 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Caitriona Maher
    • 1
    • 2
  • Micheline Sheehy Skeffington
    • 1
  • Michael Gormally
    • 2
  1. 1.Plant Ecology Research Unit, Botany and Plant Science, School of Natural SciencesNational University of Ireland GalwayGalwayIreland
  2. 2.Applied Ecology Unit, Centre for Environmental Science, School of Natural SciencesNational University of Ireland GalwayGalwayIreland

Personalised recommendations