Damp grassland on farmland is a very important breeding habitat for lapwings, curlews, redshanks, snipe and reed buntings.
A common problem in damp grassland areas is rush infestation.
Although low levels of rush cover are beneficial to breeding birds as the tussocks provide cover for nesting and for concealing chicks, heavy infestations have an adverse impact on the value of grazing pasture.
Management should be considered when infestations cover more than one-third of a field's area.
- If rush cover exceeds a third of a field’s area, its value to breeding waders is reduced.
- There are a number of methods available to reduce rush infestations.
- Ongoing management should avoid poaching and permanently saturated soils.
Benefits to wildlife
Fields prone to rush infestation are often damp, so are good potential habitat for breeding waders.
Different species select fields with different sward heights. Lapwings select fields with a short sward and scattered tussocks which will conceal their nests and chicks, but while leaving their all-round view uninhibited.
At the other extreme, the snipe prefers a higher level of concealment in taller vegetation. So a wide variety of sward heights is beneficial. Rushes can provide tussocks which are useful for cover, but if they create dense cover then the field will lack the shorter areas that are useful for feeding.
If rushes take up more than one-third of a fields area then grazing management, which is essential to maintaining the grassland for breeding waders, is made more difficult.
How to manage rush cover
Management by topping
Topping the whole field after the last wader chicks have fledged is the most effective first step in controlling rush infestation. It is best if the cuttings can be removed from the field. The earliest timing will depend on the birds present. If you are unsure, you may consider August a safe time to cut as the last snipe chicks will have fledged by then.
Where the other options detailed below are not available, then a second cut, four to eight weeks later, will help to reduce rush cover in the following year. A single cut may maintain the current level of rush cover.
It may be impractical to cut rushes in the wettest flushes, so these may be left if they form a small proportion of the field area, or they can be controlled by cattle trampling during aftermath grazing.
Management by topping and cattle grazing
Livestock tend not to graze rushes, but cattle can destroy tussocks by trampling. If cattle are available, they can be used to restore a heavily infested rushy pasture to a more open grassy sward. This is especially effective after cutting the rush low to the ground as they may eat some of the young growth.
Rush cover should be topped after the last wader chicks have fledged (August is a safe month to cut). Cattle can then be introduced to graze the aftermath.
The stocking rate should be low enough to prevent poaching, as this will allow germination of rush seed.
Management by topping and flooding
On lowland wet grassland, where the water level can be raised, cutting followed by flooding is a cheap and efficient method of killing the root ball of rushes. To be effective, the water level should be raised immediately after cutting.
Management by topping and herbicides
Herbicide control should only be used as a last resort since the approved chemicals are all broad-spectrum herbicides that will also destroy other non-target plants.
The rushes should be topped in August, or after the last wader chicks have fledged.
When the rush regrowth stands higher than the other vegetation in the field, then glyphosate should be applied using a weed-wiper set above the height of the rest of the sward. As with all pesticides, the label should be read carefully before use.
How to manage rush cover. PDF, 147KbRush management advisory sheet (England)
How to manage rush cover. PDF, 109KbRush management advisory sheet (Northern Ireland)
How to manage rush cover. PDF, 220KbRush management advisory sheet (Wales)
How to manage rush cover on your farmland. PDF, 280KbRush management advisory sheet (Scotland)
A technical note describing best practice techniques for the management of rush for breeding waders. PDF, 87KbRush management