Soft rush control in grassland

In some areas, increasing soft (common) rush is cited as a reason for ceasing organic production. What do we know about how to control rush in organic management after 6 years of wet summers in the west of the UK and British Isles? (Organised by NEFG)
Kate Gascoyne (NEFG): Chair

Ian Cairns

Session summary

Soft rush infestation has become a growing issue in the past five years due to increasingly wet summer and autumn conditions in the UK, particularly in the West, as well as changes in livestock management. It has become such a problem in certain areas that some farmers have considered coming out of organics as a result. Kate Gascoyne (NEFG) chaired this session, which was very interactive and acted as an excellent forum for farmers to exchange experiences and share ideas for potential solutions.

Ian Cairns from SAC Consulting (SRUC) gave the first presentation, entitled ‘Effective common rush management strategies’. Ian explained how soft rush can result in reduced grazing quality and productivity of grass swards, highlighting the point that while short-term control strategies can limit its spread, longer term management approaches are required to keep it more permanently at bay. To do this in an economically and ecologically sustainable way he suggested a four stage plan (see below). This plan should be tailored to the individual farm, and even customised for different fields on the farm depending on the severity of soft rush infestation. Effective control strategies are centred on the need to make conditions more suitable for a productive sward to compete with the rushes, including improving drainage, deep ploughing, liming and re-seeding. The extent to which each of these can be employed depends on cost factors, soils and conditions and the farm’s agri-environment scheme. In summary, Iain concluded that ultimately the control strategy used will depend on a farmers own objectives and the particular farm, but in all cases the key to success lies in thorough understanding of the various options and their limitations, both of which he clearly outlined.

The second presentation was from Dianne Horn, who gave a very interesting practical example of successful soft rush control at her Farm, Slack House, in Cumbria. Soft rush was a considerable problem in the most productive areas of the farm and major intervention was needed to bring it under control. This involved deep ploughing and broadcast re-seeding, followed by cutting twice and hard grazing in summer. In combination these strategies brought good control, which was aided by using competitive species in the re-seed mix. As a word of caution, however, Dianne warned of the problems heavy rain can cause after re-seeding by washing it away, allowing rushes to re-grow. This emphasised the need for choosing the right time to undertake such a control strategy. Slack House Farm hosted a workshop on soft rush control last year and Dianne included some of the outcomes from that in her talk.

To conclude the session, Kate Gascoyne involved the audience by asking if anything people had heard in the session would change their approach to control. There were a number of positive responses and discussion included the potential role of flaming and it’s ecological impacts, along with the question of compliance and the consequences of not controlling soft rush on your land if it then spreads to a neighbouring farm.

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • Short term management can limit the spread of soft rush, but longer term solutions are needed for lasting control.
  • Key control strategies include draining wet land, deep ploughing, liming and re-seeding.
  • Cost and the agri-environment scheme impact on the extent to which control strategies can be implemented.
  • The right combination of approaches, along with suitable conditions for reseeding can give successful control.

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Ian Cairns (SAC Consulting): Effective common rush management strategies in organic systems (2.6mb pdf file)

Common (soft) rush encroachment in pasture on marginal farms in the north and west of England has become a significant issue over the past 5 years. A combination of wet ground conditions during summer and autumn months and changes to livestock management systems has resulted in increasing competition from rush plants. Short term control strategies can help to limit the spread of encroachment, but a more fundamental and farm specific approach is needed to address the problem. This involves assessment of soil management, acidity, nutrient availability and pasture management in line with the objectives of land managers. A financially and technically sustainable plan can then be designed and put in place. This includes four stages;

  1. Soil and sward appraisal;
  2. Common rush control & management programme;
  3. Improve competition from a more productive sward; and
  4. Implement an effective grazing and sward management programme.

There are a significant number of variables in an effective management strategy. An increase in farmer knowledge and practical understanding of key control and management options and limitations is required. The main issues are common to both organic and conventional grassland systems and this offers an opportunity for closer integration and identification of a sustainable solution.

Dianne Horn (Slack House Farm): Adapting management of rushes in an increasingly wet climate (2.13mb pdf file)

The weather in the last few years has caused major problems for controlling the rushes in the most productive parts of the farm. They hosted a workshop on the problem in autumn this year.


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