Drought V Turf

Matthew Bakerin Industry News
It's not just great cultural institutions like the Steel Forge River, immortalised by A.A Milne as the place where Winnie the Pooh and his friends played pooh sticks, that are coming under threat from what's been billed as the worst drought in the UK since 1976.

With rivers and groundwater supplies severely depleted in the South of England and hosepipe and sprinkler bans hitting millions of homes, Britain's turf industry is preparing itself for big losses. And they're also warning that many of Britain's top parks and leisure attractions could face grave consequences as a result.
Stephen Edwards
Stephen Edwards is a worried man. The chairman of the Turf Grass Growers' Association and joint managing director of Inturf says that in the last few weeks they've noticed a marginal slowdown on turf sales. But if the drought continues he feels this could get much worse. "I had a big turf order cancelled last week and I think this was a decision based on hosepipe bans," he explains.

"We haven't seen the real effect of this directly yet because a major part of turf business is done by distributors so we're only feeling it marginally at the moment. But there's a lot of cause for concern and we could end up with lots of turf going very cheap at the back end of the year, which will be incredibly damaging to the business."

The threat of drought has been hanging over the industry for some time, he admits, which is why earlier this year the TGA put a crisis management document together and sent letters out to all the water companies imposing hosepipe bans asking for special 28-day exemption.

"Our reasoning was that rather than let water run off hard standing areas like tarmac into drains our water use is different," he says. "It takes about 28 days for the roots to take hold and the real advert of having turf over concrete is that the turf areas will filter out more efficiently through to the aquafers and go back into the water system."

The response, he concedes, has been mixed. "They haven't given us an exemption but they're going to look at us sympathetically. We have to do a lot more work to get an exemption but it would be a lot better all round if we could channel water wastage from broken pipes, then we might not need a hosepipe ban. Ultimately this could have a very commercially damaging effect on all the green industries from garden centres, nurseries, sports pitches, parks and vast areas of the leisure sector. People aren't going to want to sit on the grass in Hyde Park if it's dusty and dead are they? And they're not going to be on playing fields if they're brown and crumbling either."

Furthermore, he says there are real environmental advantages that need to be taken into consideration when considering grass as a priority need for water.
"Grass is so environmentally friendly, it's one of the best converters of CO2 to oxygen there is. At the 2012 Olympics there are targets that all the stadia should be CO2 friendly, but if there's hospepipe bans how can we green the games if there's no grass?"
Tim Fell
Across the industry, the feedback from customers suggests that as long as the hosepipe bans continue buyers are likely to have strong reservations about buying turf.

"Sales of our turf had not suffered until the beginning of this week, when demand has slowed in reaction to the forecast for a hot, dry spell," says Tim Fell from Tillers Turf. "The domestic market will be affected first. We have calls every day now from homeowners asking for advice about laying turf under the present water restrictions.

Except for the three water areas in the south east of England where drought orders have been approved, other areas with hosepipe bans can still use watering cans to water their newly laid turf. However, except for quite small lawns it's not practical to water with a watering can, so we are advising people to delay turfing until later in the year."

The longer the drought goes on, he adds, the likelihood of a confrontation between the turf industry and water companies will soon be inevitable.

"Many professional landscapers are still turfing on the grounds that they feel the water companies are sympathetic when livelihoods are at stake," he explains. "However, if the drought gets more severe during the summer the water companies may be forced into taking a hard line."

Stephen Fell Despite these problems on the immediate horizon he says that strong sales to date this year will enable his company to withstand a lean summer sales period. "It's not this year that concerns me," he stresses. "If the south east gets a third dry winter in a row then I think next year will be much more difficult.

Drought orders put in place now could well be extended into next spring and beyond. Traditional turf buyers may well start looking for alternatives. That's why it's very important that the TGA continues lobbying the water companies for an exemption for newly laid turf.

The environment gains hugely through the activities of turf suppliers because of turf's ability to convert CO2 emissions into oxygen. Turf is also the best surface for absorbing winter rainfall and recharging the underground aquifers. God help us if artificial lawns become the norm."

To fight off such threats, he adds, many in the turf industry are looking to introduce more resilient turf that's better equipped to deal with drought. "We were the first turf growers in Europe to recognise the benefits of rhizomatous tall fescue (RTF) in tolerating drought, and we sold our first crop in 2003," he explains. "We have doubled our acreage each year since then as demand grows.

RTF is unique in how it grows. It produces a really nice dense hard-sward, and at the same time sends roots 1.5m deep into the soil. It produces three times as much root as perennial ryegrass, so you can see why it might withstand drought better. It stays greener than other grasses during dry spells, and has the ability to recover completely with the first rains. Species like this will go a long way toward improving turf quality during the summer."

That may be the case, but according to other suppliers increasing pressure may be forced upon them to do more business in autumn and winter.
"Sales of turf are undoubtedly suffering as a result of the drought orders," admits Stephen Fell from Lindum Turf.

"The wet May was only a temporary respite, and the hot dry spell that followed has reinforced the fact that you cannot risk laying turf at all if you cannot water it. Thankfully Lindum Turf is not totally reliant on sales of turf to the South East, and in other areas, sales are not affected. However, our distributors in the affected areas have been hit hard.

"The outlook in those areas is bad until the autumn when you can rely on more suitable conditions for turf laying without reliance on hosepipe water. This situation is likely to be a continuing feature for future years until water companies sort out chronic storage shortage. This will put big pressure to compress the turf laying season into autumn and winter. As a supplier I don't have a problem with that although housing development companies would be faced with selling houses in the summer with the promise of a lawn later."
For many though, the prospect of a long continuing drought could the end of the British lawn as we know it. I do think that the traditional English lawn will change in the future," says Chris Carr from Q Lawns. "I think we'll see fewer fine-leaved grasses and more of the robust, disease resistant varieties.

We'll be less inclined towards really close mowing, instead going for a slightly longer, lusher sward that doesn't need such intensive care and keeps its colour better and for longer. There will never be a true replacement for the lawn though. Gravel, decking, paving etc, just doesn't have the same charm and can never be an adequate substitute for the relaxing atmosphere created by a sward of healthy green grass.

" However, it won't be just lawns that are affected. Sports pitches, playing pitches and other green areas for leisure use will be forced to have a re-think and develop varieties that are better at coping with stressful situations and are more water efficient in the short term.

"I do think that as new varieties are developed the buyer will have more choice," he adds. "Years ago, one could buy turf. That's it, just turf, an indeterminate mixture of herbage that had been subjected to little management or quality control, but today there are dozens of seedmixes to choose from and thanks to the STRI and the TGA it's possible to make informed choices.

STRI can tell they buyer how a variety behaves in terms of disease resistance, summer and winter colour, wear tolerance, reaction to close mowing etc and the TGA Standard will ensure that the buyer receives what he is expecting. With all that information and choice, the buyer can then make his own decisions on whether to choose fineness of leaf over drought tolerance."

So that's the message from the industry. A collision with the water companies is inevitable, sales are likely to be hit hard but turf manufacturers will need to adapt, and adapt quickly, if they and the great British lawn is to have a future.

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