Talking hay while the sun shines

Dr Geeta Ludhra, exploring the smell of hay.

Dr Geeta Ludhra, Dadima’s CIC.

“Ah, Mitti Matters!” Dr Geeta Ludhra was responding enthusiastically to my clumsy attempts to explain the value of floodplain meadows.

‘Mitti’ (मिट्टी), Geeta explained, is the Panjabi word for soil. The word ‘mitti’ evokes ancestral land memories for many first and second-generation British South Asians like Geeta, through family histories and nostalgic stories that the elders carried with them from the Motherland. It can hold a deep spiritual and inter-generational dimension of Panjabi folk traditions and celebrations of festivals like Lohri and Vaisakhi.

And Mitti really does matter to Geeta, her identity, her family history and her connections to landscapes. Once Geeta had explained this to me ‘Mitti Matters’ had to be the name of our latest project.

In late May 2024 colleagues from the Floodplain Meadows Partnership and the Open University had the pleasure and privilege of walking with members of the Dadima’s Community Walking Group and other walkers as a contribution to Mitti Matters.

Alongside Geeta, Open University ecologists (David Gowing, Vicky Bowskill and Emma Rothero) helped me to plan our walk together. Emma, David and Vicky led the walk on the day, sharing scientific and cultural information, and answering questions.

A group of walkers and scientists in a hay meadow.

Walkers from Dadima’s CIC, and scientists from the Open University, in a hay meadow. Credit: Sivi Sivanesan.

Here is an overview of some of the key things we shared through our collective learning.

Emma Rothero, introducing the concept of a floodplain meadow.

Emma Rothero, The Open University. Credit: Geeta Ludhra.

Emma’s contribution

Emma introduced the concept of a meadow as grassland that is mown annually. She noted that, traditionally, the hay crop has been important for sustaining farm animals through the winter, but that mowing has other potential uses too. It sustains the high diversity of plants, and it can strip nutrients from soils to counteract the effects of intensive agriculture.

She went on to describe floodplain meadows as a landscape that has been highly valued in the UK for more than a thousand years. Floodplain meadows characteristically comprise a wide range of plant species, which in turn support a high diversity of other species (including birds and insects). The diversity of root architectures of the different plants can structure a soil, enhancing its ability to store and conduct water, thereby aiding both flood-risk mitigation and water-resource management.

This is an infographic showing a meadow as a community of perennial herbaceous plants. The aboveground parts of the plants are seasonal and short-lived. The long life of meadow species (which can be 10-70 years) relies on their below ground organs (roots, rhizomes, etc.).

From shoots to roots: revealing the above and below ground structure of meadow plants. Artwork: Vicky Bowskill. Biological expertise: Irina Tatarenko. Copyright: The Open University.

Emma talked about the role that meadows play in providing ecosystem services, such as biodiversity conservation, nutrient management, carbon storage, human well-being and recreation, and flood-risk mitigation.

Professor David Gowing discussing the historical importance of floodplain meadows.

Professor David Gowing, The Open University. Credit: Geeta Ludhra.

David’s contribution

As we walked through the meadows along the River Ray, David spoke about their historical importance in terms of how they have captured nutrients from the river for hundreds of years and converted them into a form that animals can eat. Once in the food-production system, the nutrients can be recycled to allow crops to be grown sustainably.

These ideas sparked many questions, including some in-depth scientific ones such as, “Why have humans lost the ability to synthesise all the amino acids they need,” which caught David by surprise!

Another area of discussion was around the loss of connection between people and the countryside, particularly the importance for young people to spend time in nature and to be in intimate contact with the soil. We discussed concerns about the exponential rise of autoimmune diseases in recent decades and how this could be addressed. Creating fun spaces for children to play with soil as they would have done in the past was seen as a potential solution. The conclusion was that, whilst cleanliness may be a good thing, you can have too much of a good thing.

This is a photo of Dr Vicky Bowskill, from The Open University, discussing the value of hay to agriculture.

Dr Vicky Bowskill, The Open University. Credit: Emma Rothero.

Vicky’s contribution

After exploring the huge variety of plant species growing in these meadows, Vicky took a moment to pause and think about hay. She talked about the way nutrients cycle through the meadow, coming in from the river and being drawn up from the soil into the leaves and flowers of the growing plants, before being harvested as a hay crop in the summer.

Vicky passed around a bag of dried species-rich hay for people to feel, and to smell the vanilla notes of the sweet vernal grass. The time that hay is cut affects the nutrient content of the hay, because plants are constantly changing as they grow, and this affects both the nutritional value of the crop, and the nutrient cycles within the meadow. All these cycles are now shifting with climate change.

Vicky discussed how nutrients move from the river, through the meadow and into the crop and the importance of keeping soil nutrients low to allow a wide range of plants to thrive. She also talked about the health benefits of a ‘balanced meal’ of many different species for livestock, as well as people.

An infographic showing how hay makes floodplain meadows.

An infographic showing how hay makes floodplain meadows. Shared with permission from:

There were many insightful questions about how we do this kind of analysis and the different effects of haymaking and grazing.

Next steps

Our ultimate goal for Mitti Matters is to co-create a proposal for a larger research project, which will be submitted to NERC or UKRI for their consideration and assessment.

The application to fund a larger research proposal will be part of a competitive process. More proposals will fail at this next stage than will be funded. If Mitti Matters is not funded at that stage, it will not detract from the learning we shared on the day and the supportive contributions from Dadima’s and other community group representatives, professionals and students from across Milton Keynes.

Their perspectives will inform future research approaches into floodplain meadows, and collective learning approaches that acknowledge and embed diverse interpretations and understandings in intersectional ways.

One of the key things that we have realised as part of co-planning and co-delivering this event, is that diverse questions, connections and stories will be raised in the field when spaces are created for open dialogue between people from all walks of life and ages. For us, this is where the excitement for deep learning takes place.

The authors
This post is a work of joint authorship involving Vicky Bowskill, David Gowing, Emma Rothero, Geeta Ludhra and Richard Holliman.

The authors are members of the NERC-funded ‘Mitti Matters’ Project.

‘Mitti Matters’ involves staff based in the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Open University (Richard Holliman, David Gowing, Emma Rothero, Vicky Bowskill, Yoseph Araya and Sarah Davies), colleagues from Dadima’s Community Interest Company (Geeta and Subash Ludhra), teachers from Denbigh School (Emma Hanby, Jon Burgess and Helen Brown), The Parks Trust, and a range of community groups from across Milton Keynes.

Thank you to

We are very grateful to the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust for giving us access to Meadow Farm, near Bicester, where we could walk together to explore the role and function of floodplain meadows next to the River Ray.

The weather was kind to us. As ever, the cakes and masala chai provided by Geeta, Subash and other walkers (notably Raj, happy birthday!) were delicious.

Lots of people provided photos from the walk. We would like to highlight Sivi Sivanesan who very kindly took a group photo, to the exclusion of herself.

Who funded us?

Mitti Matters was funded through a co-creation bursary from the Natural Environment Research Council (NE/Y005635/1 Growing Shoots).

NERC is the largest and most significant funder for research into the environmental sciences in the UK. They commission research, infrastructure and training in support of new advances in the environmental sciences.

For NERC, environmental sciences include: atmospheric physics and chemistry; climate and climate change; ecology, biodiversity and systematics; geosciences; marine environments; polar sciences; science-based archaeology; and terrestrial and freshwater environments.

1 thought on “Talking hay while the sun shines

  1. The walk and talk was a fantastic one, full of information, learning and fun.
    Than you for supporting and helping to organise it.

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