Novel grass hybrid mitigates flooding impact

British scientists have developed a new grass hybrid that they claim could help reduce the impact of flooding.

The BBSRC-funded scientists crossed a hybridised species of grass called perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne) with meadow fescue (Festuca pratensis) to create a new variety, Festulolium.

They were able to integrate the rapid establishment and growth rate of the ryegrass with the large, well-developed root systems and efficient water capture of meadow fescue.

Researchers said two years of field experiments in the South West, costing £65,000, showed Festulolium significantly reduces water runoff from grassland compared eith conventional varieties.

In trials, the hybrid reduced runoff by 51% against a leading UK nationally recommended perennial ryegrass cultivar – and 43% compared with meadow fescue, a closely related species.

Scientists believe the reduced runoff is achieved because Festulolium’s intense initial root growth and subsequent rapid turnover, especially at depth, allows more water to be retained within the soil.

The hybrid grass also provides high-quality forage with resilience to weather extremes, making the grass doubly useful to farmers.

A team of plant and soil scientists from Rothamsted Research, the James Hutton Institute, Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University, Lancaster University and the University of Nottingham, created Festulolium.

Kit Macleod, catchment scientist at the James Hutton Institute, said: “Hybrid grasses of this type show potential for reducing the likelihood of flood generation, while providing pasture for food production under conditions of changing climate.

“In areas with similar climate and soils, then there is potential for reducing the likelihood of flood generation based on increased soil water storage within a river’s catchment.”

BBSRC chief executive Douglas Kell added: “We usually think of improving food crops solely in terms of traits such as the yield and quality of the food itself, and apart from root crops such as potatoes and carrots these are easily visible, above-ground traits.

“However, there is increasing recognition that the health and utility of plants can be greatly enhanced by improving below-ground traits such as root growth.”

Researchers have not released any details about when and if Festulolium will be available for commercial use.

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