Red fescue is a fine-leaved perennial grass of medium height and vigour. Its fine, bristle-like, mid to dark green glossy leaves are probably its most characteristic feature. Its heads are branched, typically growing to less than 70cm in height. Red fescue is extremely variable species which can grow in dense tufts or spread out by rhizomes to form patches or carpets of fine leaves. Slender-creeping varieties of red fescue are more densely tufted or mat forming and are ideal for creating fine quality lawns. They generally have shorter, slender, and less vigorous creeping rhizomes. The botanical taxonomy of red fescue group is both complex and confused. Slender creeping red fescue varieties used in amenity grassland have been variously described as Festuca rubra subspecies litoralis, ssp juncea or ssp pruinosa.
Red fescue is a widespread grass species and is a component of many botanically rich grassland communities. It is one of the most frequent grasses of unimproved traditional meadows, along with crested dogs tail and common bent. It is also common in all kinds of grassy habitats, including banks, verges and pastures.
Slender creeping forms of red fescue seem to be associated with grassland growing in more stressed environments: saltmarshes, sea-cliffs, sand dunes, hill grasslands, mountain slopes and rock ledges. F.rubra ssp litoralis for example describes a form found growing on tightly grazed, sea-washed coastal grazing marshes, and has been selected as the basis of some of the commercial amenity varieties. Slender creeping red fescue is a name widely used in the amenity trade to categorise the functional types which are most suited to creating fine lawns; these often are not definitively classified to subspecies, some indeed are probably slender forms of F.rubra ssp rubra.
Red fescue will grow in all but the most acid or waterlogged soils. It is a relatively slow growing and stress tolerant grass; it is particularly suited to growing on free draining, low fertility, neutral to calcareous soils.
Red fescue seed can be sown at any time of the year when soil conditions are suitable. It can be moderately quick to germinate from sowing, but being a relatively slow-growing grass, the small fine leaved seedlings will take some time to reach full size and cover (as compared with ryegrass for example).
Once established, red fescue plants are very long-lived and able to withstand considerable nutrient and drought stress. They are able to spread effectively by creeping vegetative rhizome growth, so are not dependant on seed to regenerate or colonise gaps. Red fescue can be a useful structural component filling out the base of a mown or grazed sward.
Where conditions favour it over other grasses red fescue does have the potential to become dominant. Long-term fescue dominance can be avoided by sowing a balanced mixture including companion grasses like crested dogstail, and by good ongoing management. Slender creeping red fescue is not as vigorous as strong creeping red fescue so is the preferred form for use in low maintenance and wild flower mixtures.
Slender creeping red fescue is particularly tolerant of frequent close mowing or grazing and responds by producing a fine dense sward so is widely sown to create fine quality lawns. Fescue turf is moderately tolerant of wear and trampling.
Red fescue grassland which is left uncut for too long can build up a smothering blanket of dense growth with an accumulation of persistent dead leaf litter (thatch) at its base. This is not good for plant diversity and good management (mowing) can help prevent this.
Mature red fescue leaves can get quite tough, wiry and have a glossy surface; they are good at resisting a scythe. Mowing a thick red fescue sward can be quite a challenge as the blade is prone to sliding up over the leaves, flattening rather than cutting through them. A really keenly sharpened well set blade is needed; keep the blade close to the ground and hone frequently. In well-managed diverse grassland red fescue typically only contributes a small proportion of the grass to be cut so is unlikely to be an issue except in occasional patches.
Fresh growth of red fescue is quite palatable to livestock and has a long growing season. As such it can provide some useful grazing as a bottom grass in meadows and pastures, particularly on unproductive low-input fields on which more productive grasses struggle. Red fescue is however less palatable than lush ryegrass and may be rejected by livestock if, with lax grazing, the fescue plants are allowed to accumulate older tougher leaves.