New grasses could reduce risk of flooding

SCIENTISTS at Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences are working with partners at Rothamsted Research North Wyke, in Devon, to develop new grasses that enable grassland soils to capture increased volumes of rainfall, thereby reducing the risk of flooding downstream.

The five-year, £2.5 million LINK project named SUREROOT is being funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and match-funded by a range of industrial partners from across the food production spectrum, including a seed company, a major retailer and the meat, poultry and dairy industry.

The research is being developed as large areas of the UK are facing continued and widespread threats from flooding and causing the UK economy and agricultural production significant losses.

But if the rates of surface run-off could be reduced and rainfall captured more effectively by grassland soils, then the worst impacts of heavy rainfall down-stream could be reduced.

The project is building on research published last year where it was reported that a forage grass hybrid known as Festulolium and designed originally for livestock agriculture also held a hidden underground and previously unknown property.

“Festulolium, which are defined as natural hybrids between ryegrass and fescue species, are very much the grasses for the future. They are the way ahead for sustainable livestock agricultural practices,” said Dr Mike Humphreys, of IBERS, who is leading the project.

“As a group Festulolium differ widely in their attributes, but IBERS has developed options that provide for increased resilience to climate change and more water and nutrient-use efficiency together with several examples of environmental service.

“Their large well developed root systems combat flooding, reduce soil erosion and compaction and offer opportunities for significant carbon capture and storage at depth in soils.

“Their grass root-soil interactions have instigated a change in soil structure leading to increased water retention with a prolonged and significant 51 per cent reduction in rainfall run-off, compared with equivalent grasses that were grown alongside and currently used extensively throughout the UK.

“The project will assess the efficiency and effectiveness of these and other new grasses, both for their agricultural production under a range of alternative livestock management systems and for their flood mitigation properties at different locations in the UK and at different scales.

“If the initial positive findings are replicated on a large scale, this points to a significant breakthrough in flood alleviation.”

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