Quantifying the recent expansion of native invasive rush species in a UK upland environment.
Rushes, such as soft rush (Juncus effusus L.), hard rush (Juncus inflexus L.), and compact rush (Juncus conglomeratus L.) have become problem species within upland grasslands across the United Kingdom and the coastal grasslands of western Norway. Indeed, being largely unpalatable to livestock and having a vigorous reproductive ecology means that they can rapidly come to dominate swards. However, rush dominance results in a reduction in grassland biodiversity and farm productivity. Anecdotal evidence from the United Kingdom suggests that rush cover within marginal upland grasslands has increased considerably in recent decades. Yet, there is currently no published evidence to support this observation. Here, we use recent and historical Google Earth imagery to measure changes in rush frequency over a 13-year period within four survey years: 2005, 2009, 2015, and 2018. During each survey year, we quantified rush presence or absence using a series of quadrats located within 300 upland grassland plots in the West Pennine Moors, United Kingdom. Data were analysed in two stages, first, by calculating mean rush frequencies per sample year using all the available plot-year combinations (the full dataset), and second by examining differences in rush frequency using only the plots for which rush frequency data were available in every sample year (the continuous dataset). The full dataset indicated that rush frequency has increased by 82% between 2005 and 2018. Similarly, the continuous dataset suggested that rush frequency has increased by 174% over the same period, with the increases in frequency being statistically significant (p < .05) between 2005-2018 and 2009-2018. We discuss the potential drivers of rush expansion in the West Pennine Moors, the ecological and agronomic implications of grassland rush infestations, and priorities for future research.