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Eastern region farmers are being asked to help combat the spread of rat’s tail fescue – a grass weed already posing problems in Denmark,... Wanted: Call for help to prevent ‘new blackgrass’

Eastern region farmers are being asked to help combat the spread of rat’s tail fescue – a grass weed already posing problems in Denmark, France, Spain and Switzerland.

Scientists say the weed – which causes significant economic damage – is starting to take hold in England and Wales. It is predominantly a threat in no-till winter cereals, where it rapidly forms dense carpets and competes with the crop.

In Australia, where rat’s tail fescue has been present in fields for more than 50 years, farmers have incurred hefty losses through crop yield reduction and contamination of forage and wool.

Research leader Lucie Büchi, of Greenwich University, said rat’s tail fescue was a relatively new grass weed in crops but of increasing concern. In the UK, it is present in natural habitats, but its distribution in arable fields is yet unknown.

“We are launching a UK-wide survey to better understand the current knowledge and distribution of this species in the UK, and its association with cropping practices. It’s really important we get on top of this before it becomes another blackgrass.”

As part of the survey, farmers will be asked to answer questions about their location, soil type and general agronomy. The aim is to identify any correlation between these factors, and the distribution or abundance of rats tail fescue.

Seed samples

Dr Büchi – and colleages Laura Cook and Richard Hull from Rothamsted Research – are inviting farmers and agronomists to send them rat’s tail fescue seeds so they can start to study the weed in preparation for its likely spread across the UK.

Mr Hill said: “We would like farmers that have rat’s tail fescue on their land to send us a mature seed sample and we can provide them with instructions for obtaining as good a seed sample as possible. 

“We plan to run a series of experiments looking at how rats tail fescue may adapt to future climates and to study the differences in the life cycle of wild and natural populations compared to seed collected from farmers’ fields.”

To aid with identification of the plant, a freely available six-page information leaflet and a shorter three-page identification guide have been produced by the team, which is available from Rothamsted.

The anonymous survey is open until 31 August. To take part, visit www.greenwich.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/vulpia-survey-uk.