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New grass could help tackle flooding, say scientists

Flooding in U.K.


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “New grass could help tackle flooding, say scientists” was written by Damian Carrington, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 25th April 2013 13.01 UTC

A new grass that cuts the water running off from fields by half could help stem the rising floods that global warming is bringing to the UK. The roots of the grass, a natural hybrid of rye and fescue grasses, produce more pores in the soil than traditional types, meaning more water can be stored.

“The enormous savings that will be possible by mitigating flooding through planting [these] grasses dwarf any possible cost of producing them,” said Professor Douglas Kell, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which funded the research, published in the journal Scientific Reports. The new grass has been tested for two years in the field and a related hybrid will be available to farmers this year.

Extreme rainfall has already risen in the UK and 2012 was England’s wettest year on record. But despite the government’s own scientists highlighting flooding as climate change’s greatest threat to the UK, the funding for flood defences remains significantly below 2010 levels, with hundreds of schemes unbuilt as a result.

As well as inundated households, agriculture suffered from the sodden weather in 2012 with more than £600m of food lost, the worst apple crop in 15 years and a 75% drop in honey production.

The new grass will help complement engineered defences with better land management. The hybrid was selected from hundreds of natural cross-breeds and tested in Devon.

Kit Macleod, a hydrologist at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, and colleagues found that it reduced the run off from clay-rich test plots by about 50% compared to its parents. The rye grass used is commonly sown in fields grazed by cattle, whereas the fescue grass was known to grow deep roots.

“The changes in run-off were due to changes in the soil structure due to the growth and then die-off of the deeper roots of the hybrid,” said Macleod. The pores left in the soil by the initial deeper roots enabled more water to be stored, he said, while the grass continued to grow successfully from shallower roots.

With 69% of the world’s agricultural land being grassland, Macleod said the new hybrid had significant potential as a plant that could simultaneously provide good forage for livestock, be resilient to increasingly extreme weather and provide flood protection.

He suggested that with changes in European agricultural subsidies under consideration, farmers could be offered incentives to grow crops that help reduce flooding. The cost of flooding to the UK could rise to £10bn a year, according to the government’s climate change risk assessment.

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