Rushes threaten hill farms

Rushes are becoming a major issue on many hill farms, but what can be done to control them? Jeremy Hunt finds out

Urgent action may be required by farmers to curb the growth and spread of common rushes following last year’s wet weather, experts are warning.

Ian Cairns, Scotland’s Rural University College (SRUC) consultant in northern England, says while the control of common rushes may be restricted on farms where stewardship schemes include the preservation of certain areas for environmental reasons, on farms where rushes can be freely controlled, effective measures involving spraying, cutting or even drainage must be undertaken.

“Rushes are becoming a major issue on many hill farms. We’re advising farmers to look at the level of rush spread across the whole of the farm and to tackle control in the most productive areas. This ‘zoning’ as a strategy of control is more effective and can be targeted at land such as the in-bye, where encroaching rushes can significantly reduce the area available for silage making,” he says.

If a farm has got rushes taking hold on say 40ha of in-bye land used for silage-making, then there’s an important issue to deal with, adds Mr Cairns.

“These are the main zones that need to be targeted because it’s here the rushes are going to have the biggest drain on the farm’s resources, whereas on poor pasture the loss isn’t felt so severely.

“And when rushes get into silage, they allow air into the clamp, preservation is poor and stock can even suffer from listeriosis as a result,” he says.

Environment scheme derogations

On holdings involved in agri-environment schemes but suffering from rush encroachment, farmers are advised to contact Natural England, which may grant derogations for control measures.

Each seed head produced by a rush plant sheds 8,000 seeds. These seeds are known for their resilience and can remain dormant in the soil until the most suitable conditions trigger germination. Young rush plants are more competitive than grass plants.

Controlling rushes

Using cattle to try and “hard graze” rushes during the summer is a low-cost and effective method of control, but success depends on ensuring cattle make a considerable impact on the rushes – something that can vary depending on what other grazing is also available.

Considerable success can be achieved by topping rushes during the summer months, suggests Mr Cairns, but where there’s a lot of cut material it should be baled and removed. If it’s left it can create a mulch and that produces ideal conditions to stimulate more rushes.

“Applications of lime and slag will alter the pH and create less favourable growing conditions, but success has also been achieved where competitive grass seed mixtures are sown to provide a vigorous opponent to young rush plants.

“Topping, followed by spraying the re-growth with glyphosate and using a weed-wiper in early summer, is the most effective method of control. It needs to be undertaken over consecutive years if the infestation is extensive, and compounded with attention to the pH and the soil profile by adding more phosphate and potash.”

Mr Cairns says if weed-wiping is undertaken it’s best to do two passes at 90 degrees. “It’s a job that can be tackled using a weed-wiper mounted on a quad bike. The ultimate aim is to tip the balance in favour of the grass.”

The cost of control measures varies from £37-£70/ha for topping to £125-£150/ha for a total plough and re-seed. Glyphosate treatment costs about £28/ha.

Chris Harrison, Alston Moor, Cumbria 
 Hill farmer Chris Harrison of Alston Moor in east Cumbria says rushes are “creeping down the hill”, as well as spreading over wetter and higher pastures.

“We’ve seen the suckler cows go and the rushes move in,” says Mr Harrison, who has agri-environment agreements on his land where rushes are spreading.

“I think Natural England is well aware of the seriousness of the problem and is prepared to work with farmers so there’s enough habitat for nesting birds without losing so much grazing land taken over by rushes. Within our agreement we’re restricted to the dates we can control rushes – although some rushes are useful in lambing fields and provide good protection for young lambs.”

Mr Harrison tops rushes in late May to June to comply with his environmental prescription and uses a weed-wiper to hit the re-growth.

“It does make a real difference providing you can treat the young growth. It gives us some level of control, but rushes are still a big problem to all hill farmers on Alston Moor. Where it’s allowed, some farmers have been liming fields to try and control the rushes, but no matter what we all do, as we see fewer cows on hill land we are bound to see the situation getting worse.”

Are you an upland farmer who has problems with rushes? Why not share your thoughts on our dedicated livestock forum 

See more