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New grass hybrid could help reduce the likelihood of flooding

  • Collaboration of BBSRC-funded scientists use hybridised forage grass to combine fast root growth and efficient soil water retention
  • Field experiments show Festulolium cultivar reduces water runoff by up to 51% against nationally-recommended cultivar
  • Potential for the hybrid to capture more water and reduce runoff and likelihood of flood generation

A collaboration of plant and soil scientists from across the UK has shown a grass hybrid species could help reduce the impact of flooding.

The BBSRC-funded scientists from North Wyke (part of Rothamsted Research), the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University, and Lancaster University, used a hybridised species of grass called perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne) with a closely related species called meadow fescue (Festuca pratensis).

The rainfall runoff plots were engineered to collect rainfall that moved laterally along the soil and near the surface. Image: Dr Kit Macleod
The rainfall runoff plots were engineered to collect rainfall that moved laterally along the soil and near the surface. Image: Dr Kit Macleod

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

Over two years of field experiments in the south west the team demonstrated that the hybrid, named Festulolium, reduced water runoff from agricultural grassland by up to 51% compared to a leading UK nationally-recommended perennial ryegrass cultivar and by 43% compared to meadow fescue.

It is thought the reduced runoff is achieved because Festulolium's intense initial root growth and subsequent rapid turn-over, 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.

Dr. Kit Macleod, catchment scientist at the James Hutton Institute who worked on the project whilst employed at Rothamsted Research, North Wyke, said: "Hybrid grasses of this type show potential for reducing the likelihood of flood generation, whilst providing pasture for food production under conditions of changing climate.

Small plot equipment was used to harvest and weigh the grass. Image: Dr Kit Macleod
Small plot equipment was used to harvest and weigh the grass. Image: Dr Kit Macleod

"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."

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of BBSRC, said: "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.

"This is a superb example of that reasoning, and a hugely important advance resulting from decades of fundamental BBSRC-supported work on the hybridisation of Lolium and Festuca (Fescue) species. I am sure that we shall see a continuing resurgence of interest in root biology, which findings such as this are sure to promote. The enormous savings that will be possible by mitigating flooding through planting grasses such as these dwarf any possible cost of producing them."


Notes to editors

A novel grass hybrid to reduce flood generation in temperate regions has been scheduled for online publication in Scientific Reports on Thursday 25 April at 1400 London time/0900 US Eastern Time.

Scientific Reports is an online-only journal. The online version of the article can be considered definitive. The DOI for this paper will be 10.1038/ srep01683. Please note that the correct citation of the journal is "Scientific Reports" not "Nature Scientific Reports."

This research was funded by a grant (BB/D010683/1) from the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Rothamsted Research and Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) are grant-funded by BBSRC.

About James Hutton Institute

The James Hutton Institute is a world-leading, multi-site scientific organisation encompassing a distinctive range of integrated strengths in land, crop, waters, environmental and socio-economic science. It undertakes research for customers including the Scottish and UK Governments, the EU and other organisations worldwide. The institute has a staff of nearly 600 and 125 PhD students.

The Institute organises its research through seven principal themes: Safeguarding Natural Capital, Enhancing Crop Productivity and Utilisation, Delivering Sustainable Production Systems, Controlling Weeds, Pests and Diseases, Managing Catchments and Coasts, Realising Land's Potential and Nurturing Vibrant and Low Carbon Communities.


IBERS is an internationally recognised centre of excellence for the study of biological, environmental and rural sciences.

It is a unique institution within Higher Education the UK which draws on academic expertise to undertake ground-breaking research to improve agricultural practices and to inform policy. The extensive range of work undertaken covers teaching, research, enterprise and knowledge transfer which enables IBERS to play a valuable role in the global drive to tackle some of the world's most urgent challenges.

IBERS was established in April 2008 following the merger of the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER),formerly part of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with Aberystwyth University. IBERS receives strategic funding for research from the BBSRC, and benefits from financial support from the Welsh Government, DEFRA and the European Union.

About Lancaster University

Lancaster University is ranked in the top 1% of Universities in the world and ranked 9th in the Times Higher World's top 100 universities under 50.

Following the latest research assessment exercise over 90% of the research at Lancaster was found to be world leading or internationally significant with some key areas of research ranked top in the UK. Lancaster is a member of the N8 Group - a research partnership of the top 8 most research intensive universities in the North of England.

About The University of Nottingham

The University of Nottingham has 42,000 students at award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It was 'one of the first to embrace a truly international approach to higher education', according to the Sunday Times University Guide 2013. It is also one of the most popular universities among graduate employers, one of the world's greenest universities, and winner of the Times Higher Education Award for 'Outstanding Contribution to Sustainable Development'. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong and the QS World Rankings.

More than 90% of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise. The University aims to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health. The University won a Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education for its research into global food security.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest ever fundraising campaign, will deliver the University's vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future.

About Rothamsted Research

Rothamsted is an independent scientific research institute and the longest running agricultural research station in the world. Established in 1843 and strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), we provide independent, cutting-edge scientific research to develop innovations that benefit our health, farming and the environment.


BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £500M (2012-2013), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see:
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see:

Tags: crops environmental change farming The Institute of Biological Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) BBSRC press release