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War declared against invasive species

November 2019

close up of an Asian Hornet
Hornets are a real threat to our honey bees

Plants, animals and insects that were unheard of in the British Isles centuries ago are now commonplace. As we travelled more, and as trade, horticulture and farming expanded, slowly but surely species that were only known in other parts of the world gradually became introduced to here in the UK.

Today it is thought that there are overall nearly two thousand invasive species in our land, from organisms to large animals, which have been introduced by humans and did not evolve in the local environment. Some of course have been here for centuries and have caused little harm; but others have decimated native plants and animals.

Some of the most successful invasive species to date include Japanese knotweed (hugely invasive and can cause damage to property) and the signal crayfish (a voracious predator feeding on native fish, frogs and invertebrates).

The grey squirrel is of course a good example of an invasive species; they were deliberately introduced from North America in the 1870s and are now pretty well everywhere. However, while they can look sweet, they also carry a virus which is fatal to our native red squirrels, hence the rarity of red squirrels today.

It has now been suggested that a million volunteers are needed to help tackle the spread of new invasive non-native species in the UK.

The problem has been highlighted by the Government’s Environmental Audit Committee who say between 36 and 48 new species will probably become established here in the next 20 years.

The Committee is made up of a group of cross party MPs, and they say that slowing the rate of arrival of invasive non-native species due to human activity, and the restriction of invasive species which are already well established here, are now top priorities. They are citing the Asian hornet and giant hogweed as examples where urgent activity is required.

Asian hornets are the largest members of the wasp family and are native to China. However, they have slowly been moving west, reaching Europe in 2004 and are now widespread in parts of France, Spain and Portugal. They reached Britain three years ago in 2016. The worry is because these large hornets could have a devastating impact on British bees.

These hornets feed on sugars such as nectars from flowers, but they also raid hives by sitting outside and pouncing on the worker bees as they go in and out. They chomp the bees up to feed to their lavae. Hornets have already been found at opposite ends of England, from Cornwall to Yorkshire, and the threat against our native honey bees is very serious.

Giant hogweed is part of the cow-parsley family originating from the Caucasus region and central Asia. It is quite an attractive plant with towering stems and large white flowers. But this plant produces a phytotoxic sap which can cause serious burns on the skin that take months to heal; and the plants are also dangerous to animals when eaten. Even worse, each plant can produce up to fifty thousand seeds per year, so it is very invasive. Some years ago the Wildlife and Countryside Act made it illegal to plant or cause giant hogweed to grow in the wild, but this tenancious plant keeps growing and spreading.

Another problem highlighted by the Ccommittee is the oak processionary moth. The name comes because they travel nose-to-tail in procession which might look sweet but they are a serious threat. Not only do their hairs cause skin irritation and even asthma in humans, but they can strip an oak tree bare, leaving them in a very weakened state.

The Committee has suggested that over a million people across the UK could be taught how to spot “outbreaks” of invasive species, and it has also called for a dedicated border force to be established by next year to improve biosecurity at UK borders.

They have also called for the government to set up a rapid-response emergency fund to enable agencies to tackle a threat before it gets out of control and to increase funding for the Non-Native Species Secretariat to £3m per year.

There is a lot of information on line about various invasive species including at:

http://www.nonnativespecies.org/alerts/index.cfm
https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2019/05/invasive-species/
https://www.gov.uk/guidance/prevent-the-spread-of-harmful-invasive-and-non-native-plants

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