Wet, wet, wet!

Jack Clough, UEL wetland research

Studying for a PhD at University of East London, Jack Clough charts his involvement in the Water Works project, the hopes being pinned on Glyceria fluitans and his own wetland journey

 

As a research assistant at the University of East London (UEL), coming into the final year of a PhD focussing on wet farming, I’m extremely lucky to spend my time acting as an explorer! Developing and trialling new ideas that can help our world become more sustainable through science is great fun: most of summer is spent outside running experiments on wetlands across the UK and abroad. These experiments look at site condition, plant growth, and taking water measurements, the rest of my time is in the office making sense of the data.

My wetland journey began back in 2012, starting at UEL on a legal case looking at peat extraction on a wetland in Cumbria; the site had been drained and dug to use the peat for compost and growing media. Looking out over this flat, bare peat landscape, I realised we needed to protect our precious wetlands before we lose them - ever since I've been inspired to look at options that can achieve this.

Wetlands are important for many ecosystem services: they absorb carbon from the atmosphere to help climate change, provide a home for plants and animals, while cleaning and retain drinking water. However, wetlands can only do this when they remain wet and waterlogged - unfortunately, most have been drained and damaged for human use over time, including conversion for agriculture. These damaged ‘agriculturalised’ wetlands are a source of carbon emissions and contribute directly to climate change. These emissions will continue to happen for as long as the soils are drained and this problem won’t go away unless we find a solution.

The emerging idea of wet farming could be that solution; it involves ‘re-wetting’ damaged wetland soils, while maintaining the cultivation of specialist wetland plant species for a wide variety of uses. With a bit of research, expert input from the farming community and a willingness to try new things we can develop wetland farming in the UK. This will reduce carbon emissions while providing sustainable raw materials, food and energy!
 

A leap into the unknown and that’s why science is so fascinating! The wet farming journey is just beginning in the UK, but I’m hopeful that it will play a part in our fight against climate change."

The exciting Water Works project is one of the first wet farming projects in the UK - UEL are a project partner which means we're involved trialling a mix of both developed and completely new wetland friendly crops. The Fens in the East of England is an area which urgently needs to move towards sustainable management of soils, so trialling wet farming here is key. We will be able to develop and share these crops and the systems needed to grow them to farmers, the public and policymakers. Ultimately this will give us a fantastic opportunity to gather data, build support and move wet farming in the UK from a small idea into practical applied research on the ground.

In the past potential food crop for wet farming that would be suited to our temperate environment in the UK was challenging: providing food is important. In the Water Works project we are trialling a new crop Glyceria fluitans, also known as ‘Sweet Manna grass’. Glyceria is a grain like crop - its seed was gathered from the wild and used for porridge and flour in the past but was never cultivated as it grew on wetter soils. By trialling this nutritious crop in the Water Works project we'll see if it thrives in a wet farming system, and assess the initial yield at scale - with potential food or fodder application. This work builds on a small but successful trial at the Great Fen a few years ago, when I arrived with a van packed full of young Glyceria plants thinking 'I've no idea if this will work – what if all the plants die when I plant them?' A leap into the unknown and that’s why science is so fascinating!

Developing wet farming is certainly a big leap but will solve two problems. Firstly, we can restore ecosystem services which are lost when wetlands are damaged. Secondly, instead of taking the land out of production, we can still use these areas for farming – just in a new way! The wet farming journey is just beginning in the UK, but I’m hopeful that it will play a part in our fight against climate change.