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Climate-Smart Grass: Research

Improved grasslands dominate the Welsh landscape occupying 43% of Welsh lowlands and 26% of Welsh uplands, where they sustain livestock farming – a major but fragile component of the Welsh economy. Unlike most other crops, grasslands are multifunctional; in addition to providing low-cost, healthy and nutritious forage for livestock they provide important ecosystem services including their critical role as components of catchments for all major Welsh rivers where they regulate water acquisition, water quality and its later release from soils. Climate change will inevitably lead to changes in agroecosystem functioning. Against a backdrop of increasing atmospheric CO2, ground-level O3 and temperature, the UK and many areas of Europe have recently witnessed unprecedented extreme weather patterns impacting on the capacity of agricultural grasslands to deliver a range of ecosystem services (e.g. food security, carbon and water storage, biodiversity). These atypical weather events include extreme floods, high levels of ground-level O3, wildfires, prolonged periods of heat stress and drought. To future-proof the ecological, socioeconomic and cultural aspects of agricultural landscapes, land users will need to adapt management practices to meet this challenge. Central to achieving this goal is the adoption and implementation of holistic and novel climate-smart plant breeding programmes with soil- and animal-based management strategies to provide landscape resilience. Critically, we need to develop regimes which provide resistance to more than one stress (multi-stress resilience). To address this challenge, we bring together a multidisciplinary team of scientists from across Wales to develop and validate new regimes for the protection of lowland productive grasslands. We have focused on this ecosystem as it represents the greatest land use in Wales, and forage production for ruminant livestock provides a major livelihood for Welsh farmers (although clearly this research has much wider international relevance). The work directly aligns with Defra Strategy and with both UK and Welsh Government policy needs.

The key goals of the research programme are:

  • To improve our fundamental understanding of how plant-soil interactions in grasslands respond to a combination of environmental stressors (extreme weather events) and how these will affect farm productivity and the delivery of ecosystem services.

  • To determine the ‘tipping points’ at which environmental stressors cause irreversible negative changes in grassland ecosystem functioning.
  • To develop a range of novel Festulolium-based mitigation strategies which provide increased resistance to extreme weather events.
  • To test and validate these new Festulolium mitigation strategies at the field plot-scale.
  • To provide the agricultural industry, policymakers and associated stakeholders with new management tools for future-proofing Welsh agriculture against extremes and uncertainties in weather.
  • To develop a new self-sustaining national research network that pursues policy relevant research to improve the resilience of Welsh farming to multiple environmental stressors.

In summary, the increasing number and frequency of extreme weather events experienced by the UK are predicted to negatively affect grassland ecosystems, resulting in severe knock-on effects to a range of key ecosystem services, the agricultural economy and the cultural landscape. These environmental consequences may be compounded if extreme events occur close together.

In this NRN-LCEE Cluster we seek to better understand the fundamental science that underpins grassland responses to extreme events while simultaneously designing and testing new grassland swards to provide greater resistance against them.

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