Scientists in the Westcountry are close to a breakthrough that could dramatically reduce flooding on agricultural land, thanks to the development of new varieties of grass.
Experts at North Wyke, the grassland research centre near Okehampton, point out that many of the river catchments in the wettest areas of the UK are upland grasslands. If the rates of surface run-off could be reduced in these areas and rainfall captured more effectively by grassland soils, then the worst impacts of heavy rainfall down-stream may be reduced, they believe.
The SUREROOT project, builds on earlier research funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) published last year in the Nature Journal Scientific Reports.
That showed a forage grass hybrid known as Festulolium and designed originally for livestock agriculture, also held a hidden underground and previously unknown property.
Dr Mike Humphreys of IBERS is leading the project. He said: “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.
“Festulolium as a group 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.”
He explained that their grass root-soil interactions instigated a change in soil structure leading to increased water retention with a prolonged and significant 51% reduction in rainfall run-off compared with equivalent grasses that were grown alongside and that are currently used extensively throughout the UK.
The SUREROOT 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.
Changes will be made to grass and clover root architecture and growth patterns, and their impact on soil structure and hydrology will be evaluated if reproduced widely at the field scale. If the initial positive findings are replicated on a large scale, this points to a significant breakthrough in flood alleviation.
Professor Phil Murray of Rothamsted Research, who receives strategic funding by the BBSRC said: “Trialling these new grasses and clovers at the field scale, on the North Wyke Farm Platform, will allow us to quantify the environmental services that the increased rooting may give.
"This is especially pertinent at the current time given the extreme rainfall we are seeing, and the downstream flooding problems that are present in large areas of the country. If the grasses behave as we predict then they will be another ‘green engineering’ tool to alleviate flooding.”
The SUREROOT project will employ two state-of-the-art and new BBSRC-funded National Capability Phenotype Facilities, the National Plant Phenomics Centre at IBERS, Aberystwyth University in Wales and the North Wyke Farm Platform in Devon.