This video was recorded shortly before National Meadows Day on 04 July 2020.
Meadows are a fantastic place to see an abundance of wildlife, but they’re not as wild as you might think; they’re an ancient part of our agricultural landscape that has evolved from the need to produce hay to feed to livestock. But, as the saying goes, they don’t make it like they used to. PhD student, Vicky Bowskill, explains why she is researching the importance of timing, for making both a healthy meadow and healthy livestock.
Hello, I’m Vicky Bowskill and I’m speaking to you from here in Yarnton Mead near Oxford.
Meadows are a fantastic place to see an abundance of wildlife, but they’re not as wild as you might think; they’re an ancient part of our agricultural landscape that has evolved from the need to produce hay to feed to livestock. But, as the saying goes, they don’t make it like they used to.
Meadow species have adaptations and life habits that enable them to thrive on British floodplains under the annual cycle of summer hay cutting and aftermath grazing in the autumn that has been shaping these plant communities for centuries. However, since World War II, some 97% of our precious wildflower meadows have been lost, due to agricultural intensification and changes in land use.
Yarnton Mead is a floodplain meadow sitting on the northern bank of the River Thames and these wet meadows are especially diverse, with up to 40 plant species for every square metre, supporting a wide range of other wildlife. Floodplain meadows have long been valued as a low-input, naturally fertile farm resource and their species-rich hay can still provide a broad nutrient profile and plant medicinal compounds for pasture-fed livestock.
The reason floodplain meadows are so fertile is the nutrient-rich sediments that are deposited on them when they flood. However, if soil nutrients are allowed to build up too much, the biodiversity in the meadow can fall as the tall, competitive grass species crowd out the smaller, more delicate wildflowers. So it’s important to keep the fertility in balance and the best way to do that is to take an annual hay crop that physically removes all the nutrients that have been taken up by the plants as they grow.
The timing of haymaking is a critical part of successful meadow management that has always been governed by the vagaries of weather and seasons. Modern haymaking has a very different impact on sensitive meadow species, with hay often cut later to protect ground nesting birds, and modern machinery allowing large areas to be covered much more quickly.
Cutting hay later can be perceived to make a lower quality crop, with nutrients thought to fall as the summer goes by. There is a need to better understand how the nutritional and medicinal content of hay changes during the growing season to bring the production of a valuable hay crop back into balance with biodiversity conservation and this is where my research is focussed. You can see I’ve been collecting some hay samples here this morning that I’ll be analysing in the lab later.
With a changing policy landscape and focus on sustainable food production, it is more important than ever to see how our heritage hay meadows can continue as part of a sustainable, nature-friendly farming future.