Talk: Hay Days, meadow science for biodiversity and agriculture

This talk was orginally published as part of the Denbigh School STEM Lecture Series 2021.

Written, filmed and produced by Vicky Bowskill with support from the the Floodplain Meadows Partnership. Thanks also to Open University School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, CENTA and site owners FAI Farms, the Bucks, Berks and Oxon Wildlife Trust and The Parks Trust.
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In this video PhD student, Vicky Bowskill, talks about the science of meadows, including:

  • What meadows are and why they are important for both nature and farming;
  • How the things we do to manage our meadows can affect the life that calls them home; and
  • How we do field research to help us better understand these meadows.

This video is aimed at A-level science students and anyone else who wants to know more about our fantastic wildflower meadows.

Find out more at:
Questions from the audience:

Which is the best time for farmers to cut fields, balancing the needs of the animals that live there, alongside the needs of the plants?

This is exactly the question that I’m researching and it will be a couple more years before I have enough data to answer it properly. The best time will be a bit different for each farmer – and for the same farmer each year – depending on the weather (e.g. heatwaves or droughts), how wet their meadows get and whether they have ground nesting birds or other species that need to be protected. My research will give farmers more information to help them make that decision and it’s likely that a flexible approach, rather than a set calendar date, will be most effective.

How do you determine the amount of nutrients in the ground from the plants? Is it through the species that you find? Or is it from the make up of the plants themselves?

Some plants will take up extra nutrients if they are available – what we call ‘luxury consumption’ – whilst others will only take up what they need, even if more is available. So, finding out the nutrient content in the hay gives a measure of how much nutrient you have been able to remove from the soil, but it can’t tell you how much nutrient is left in the soil. The quickest way to find that out is to analyse soil samples and there are kits available to do this in the field for some nutrients. But you can also tell a lot by observing the plants that are growing. Each species has particular preferences for nutrients, pH and water levels, so the list of species present can be used to infer what is going on in the soil. For example, wetter areas might have sedges, nutrient-rich areas will have fewer fast-growing plants like nettles and dry areas will have deeper rooted species like knapweed. But plants respond relatively slowly, so there is a delay of a year or more for changes in the soil to show up in the plant distribution. Meadows are a dynamic system and watching the changes in a meadow year-on-year is fascinating.

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