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Farmers are testing the power of herbal leys in a bid to fight back against flooding

Farmers are testing the power of herbal leys in a bid to fight back against flooding

14 June 2024 Pasture resilience

Amid record-breaking rainfall and widespread flooding in the UK this year, a group of Lancashire farmers are switching traditional grass leys for alternatives with longer-rooting, protein-rich alternatives that could help soils to better absorb water.

Recent research by Wyre Rivers Trust, who are co-ordinating the trial, found three-quarters of soils on 12 farms in the catchment were compacted to a degree that would stop rainwater infiltrating, increasing flood risks for both local farms and communities. 

With demand for nature-based solutions rising, the four farms are testing two herbal ley mixes and measuring the effect on water infiltration by the soil. 

“Herbal leys are the simplest and quickest way to future-proof the farm”

The two-year trial aims to see the longer roots of the herbal leys improve the soil structure at a deeper level, improving their capacity to store water and protecting the local community from flooding.

Additionally, the nutrient-rich swards could improve financial margins for livestock farmers by improving animal health and growth, reducing the need for artificial fertilisers, and increasing drought resilience.

Herbal leys also provide improved habitats for wildlife including pollinators, compared to single species leys.

Triallist Michael Kelsall, of Big Blindhurst Farm, a Preston-based dairy enterprise, said: “Heavy rainfall has been a huge issue this year, so we’re working to reduce any future impact.

"Herbal leys are a cost-effective way for us to improve our business – if the fields don’t have standing water at the surface, we can start the grazing season earlier. We produce gelato and raw milk, so having nutrient-rich grass for the cows is also an easy way to increase productivity. 

"This is part of a wider project, planting trees along the river and installing hedgerows – all of this helps, but herbal leys are the simplest and quickest way to future-proof the farm.”

Pioneering change

The Wyre Rivers Trust are responsible for gathering data in the trial, which will see farmer’s fields analysed to see how absorption levels are affected by the herbal ley treatment.

Participating farms also have access to the trust’s soil health model, which gives farmers greater insight in to how their soil performs and can be used to model the effectiveness of growing different crop types.

Innovative Farmers manager Rebecca Swinn said: “We’re excited to see farmers leading research that could provide insights that would benefit any UK farm that is prone to flooding and looking for solutions that also support nature and climate.

“Natural flood management schemes often fail to recognise the value of options like herbal leys – the research from these trials will contribute vital evidence to their effectiveness.

“If these trials show long-term improvement in soil structure, it could allow the farmers access to funding from either government or private companies to deliver flood mitigation.

“Increasing water absorption on fields also means lower risks of flooding for other local areas, so the findings will also benefit local communities who are suffering the impacts of flooded farms.

“We hope this inspires other farmers to try these nature-friendly methods.”

Follow the trial here.

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