Pitches for all seasons

The latest drainage systems are helping groundsmen cope with increasing rainfall rates.

Flooded pitches are losing clubs revenue - photo: Dave Morris
Flooded pitches are losing clubs revenue - photo: Dave Morris

Few grounds managers would relish a job at Bonar Bridge Football Club. The Scottish Highland non-league side's pitch is so flood-prone that no matches have been played on it since October last year and it is often impassable even in wellies.

But waterlogging is becoming a growing concern in the sports-turf world as summer and winter sports scheduled overlap in one of the wettest and dullest Augusts on record, capping off a summer with 40 per cent higher rainfall than average across the UK.

But every cloud, as they say, has a silver lining. According to Land Drainage Contractors Association (LDCA) secretary Bruce Brockway: "Demand has been there for a few years now, and our guys are flat-out on both sports and agricultural drainage."

In fact, demand is even greater in agricultural, on the back of high cereal prices, he says. This has tied up many of the LDCA 60-plus members in renewing drainage systems in areas such as East Anglia, where land productivity is again a prime concern.

He adds: "Increased rain actually makes it more difficult for contractors - you can't put in drainage when it's too wet."

Another limiting factor is that demand currently outstrips supply, he says. "There are thousands of grounds out there that all need improving. But there's not much capacity in the industry, and there's effectively a waiting list. You can't just call up and get someone round next week. It's more likely to be next spring."

The drainage itself is "not rocket science", he says. "But installing it is a specialist job, for which you need specialist kit - such as laser grading on the trenchers, and low-ground-pressure tyres that won't damage the turf. And guys with that kind of specialist equipment are thin on the ground."

High demand could lead to "cowboys" encroaching on the specialists' turf, he adds. "The downturn in house building could mean a lot of contractors with a JCB or an excavator looking for work, and sadly we will see them coming into the market. The customer needs to beware."

Such specialist work obviously comes at a price, which not all managers can afford. But Brockway says that should not lead to corners being cut.

"In some cases the impact of high rainfall over a short period has seen people rushing out to install secondary drainage, in the form of gravel banding or sand slitting," he says.

"We see this especially at local level - parish councils faced with boggy ground see it as a low-cost remedy. It does afford some temporary relief. But it is secondary - it only works if it's above piped drainage with permeable backfill. Otherwise, there's nowhere for the water to go."

Most new sports pitches have primary drainage which consists of pipes at 5m centres across the field, backfilled with aggregate to a depth of 100-150mm, topped off with a mix of sand and topsoil. This is often overlaid with secondary drainage, made up of gravel or sand-based trenches at 90 degs to the primary system.

But the cost involved in primary drainage need not deter even those on modest means, says Brockway. "You may think you can't afford, say, £40,000 for a full system. But you can put in pipes at 10m or 15m spacing now, then fill in the spaces in two years' time."

Such systems are only effective in the context of regular turf care, he adds. "You need to keep the surface free-draining. The sand slits get capped over, so the water can't drain away through them. Topdressing and aeration are obviously important too."

East Yorkshire-based Sweeting Bros Land Drainage is an LDCA member. Co-owner Dan Sweeting says: "Drainage is a large investment, but councils and others will spend it so they get as much use as possible from their pitches. And it lasts a long time."

He says that companies such as his have benefited not only from more erratic rainfall patterns but also from higher investment in sporting facilities. "New pitches are high on the agenda thanks to the Olympics," he says. "There's funding from the Sports Council and the Football Foundation."

Drainage systems are now fitted as standard in such pitches, and for those funded by the National Lottery this is a stipulation. The LDCA publishes what it describes as the "bible" of drainage systems, Guidelines for Sportsturf Drainage Installation, and adherence to this is often incorporated into tender documents.

Golf courses are also an important market, Sweeting adds. "They want the work done after the season ends in late September or early October. But we would rather do it when it's dry - we don't want to damage the turf."

Institute of Groundsmanship head of professional services Ian Lacy says coping with changing weather patterns is a concern across the industry.

"We seem to be getting big shifts in rainfall from year to year," he says. "One year we have drought conditions, the next, flooding. And we've almost lost the seasons - they seem to be merging into one."

Grounds managers need to take the long-term view to deal with both problems, he says. "You can't just be reactive. The danger is that in a dry year you rush to put in irrigation and in a wet one, put in drainage. It has to be part of a strategy."

This may mean considering more sustainable solutions, he says. Tighter discharge regulation also means that grounds owners are less likely to fall foul of the Environment Agency if water can be retained on-site. This can then be used for irrigation in drier months.

"Back when we had a more balanced climate, it wasn't seen as necessary," says Lacy. "It's only in the past five or six years that it's got onto the agenda."

Such systems need not be daunting, he says. "The tank doesn't have to be massive, or cost a phenomenal amount. And once installed there's minimal maintenance." But recycled water brings its own issues, he adds. "You need special filters, and even then you couldn't drink it. It's still safe to get it in contact with you on the pitch though."

Lacy, a former horticulture lecturer, says the way students are taught to regard the weather is changing. "You also have to view it in a different way," he says. "You won't necessarily get frost in January or February but - you might get 15 degsC instead. You should still keep the textbooks, but they're only a guide."


Lord's cricket ground in London has led the way in state-of-the-art drainage - a decision which has been vindicated by wet summers this year and last. The system is now seen as a role model or the sport.

From 2002 -03, the ground's manager Middlesex County Cricket Club spent £1.25m of its own funds on relaying the outfield - though not the square. "Because it had poor drainage, a lot of cricket was being lost," says club representative Neil Prescott.

"Last summer there was an almighty downpour just before an England-India test match. In times gone by that would have meant play would have been wiped out. But at Lord's play was already underway by 2pm.

"The alternative would have been to give everyone their money back, which would have cost £1.25m. In other words, the whole drainage system paid for itself in one day. And there has been no shortage of rain since."

Lord's is famous for its 2.5m drop from one side of the pitch to the other, which was preserved in the laser-guided installation. "We didn't want to change its unique character," says Prescott. "The grass is now like a putting green on a US golf course and drains incredibly quickly."

More recently, the England & Wales Cricket Board has awarded a £600,000 grant for a new drainage and irrigation system at Yorkshire County Cricket Club's Headingley ground. Similar work is also underway at Lancashire's Old Trafford stadium.

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