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17 Feb 2022 < Back

Invasive weeds - will we finally get the Environmental policies we need?

PCA members are focussed on protecting and/or enhancing valuable assets in the built environment. For our invasive weed control members this means a focus on plants which are causing either direct physical damage to or diminishing value/utility of property in other ways. Sometimes this work can seem somewhat detached from the wider impact of invasive species in the environment, but this too is definitely a focus for our members in urban and non-urban settings. Indeed, qualified, experienced invasive weed control surveyors can be a valuable asset in environmental management particularly as they know there is no “quick fix” for problematic invasive weeds - management plans need to be realistic and long-term.

What's on the horizon?

So with the news being full of articles on-and-off about species extinction and habitat loss and what Governments can do to stop and reverse these trends, we thought it would be useful to reflect on the enforcement powers that exist already (to oblige landowners to manage/control/eradicate invasive species on their land) and what may be on the horizon. Do we have the Environmental policies we need to bring invasive species under control and/or prevent new ones? Can PCA members provide support with “re-wilding” projects in National Parks or on farms etc.?

The Status Quo

The Wildlife & Countryside Act was passed into law in 1981, the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act (in Scotland and Northern Ireland) in 2011 and the Invasive Alien Species Regulations in 2014. All of these legislative instruments give protection to wildlife and include penalties for land owners who do not protect vulnerable species, and manage/control invasive alien species that are a threat to natural plant/animal communities and habitats. So why is it, 40 years after the Wildlife & Countryside Act was passed, that plants like Himalayan balsam and Floating Pennywort are still incredibly common and widespread and regularly grabbing the headlines? Let's not forget the best-known invasive plant in Europe. A recent report from a team of ecologists in Germany (Nature Communications) stated that Japanese knotweed is a ‘super invader’ and the UK is one of the worst affected countries out of 658 regions assessed worldwide! They said there was (overall) “a very high level of decline in floristic uniqueness”. Academic speak for the fact that Japanese knotweed is über-competitive and often displaces all other flora/vegetation so producing a monoculture which provides little or no habitat or food for native species of insects etc. Scant evidence here then that existing legislation for controlling invasive weeds is having the desired impact “in the wild”.

Can we expect to see change?

So can we expect to see any changes in the way invasive species are managed in natural and/or urban environments? Let’s take a look at some things happening now and see if we can spot a trend….. The Commons Environmental Committee’s 2019 report - "Invasive Species" -  included a raft of recommendations to Government to improve/add to the above legislation (and others) to help control the spread of invasive species. The Government response (2020) makes interesting reading. If I can summarise, it acknowledges that we need to do more and achieve better co-ordination between agencies. In the context of this blog, the notes on “Tackling Invasive Species” signal their possible future funding intentions. They commit to continued support for biological control research, to make invasive species control a “public good” under the proposed Environmental Land Management scheme (Agriculture Bill) so that it becomes eligible for funding and finally, to review budgets to enhance the work of the Non-Native Species Secretariat and Local Action Groups.

United Nations Action

COP26 – Climate Change: This big UN event took place in the UK so got a lot more publicity here than it might otherwise. The UK Government was keen to show the world that the UK has made some progress towards carbon neutrality. For the property sector, there are lots of ways global warming and energy use can cause an impact - see James Berry’s blog on flooding risks, particularly flash floods and how they may compromise basement waterproofing systems, and Steve Hodgson's on energy efficiency in buildings in the latest Hodgson View. For Invasives, we know that climate change means that conditions may improve for alien species, whilst the resilience of native species/communities becomes compromised. But whilst COP26 did include discussions about climate impacts on natural ecosystems and sustainability of agriculture/forestry, actually, they didn’t address the specific problem of Biodiversity loss head-on. This was covered elsewhere….. COP 15 – Biodiversity: This was held in China and the final Kunming declaration stated that they “recognise that (one of) the main direct drivers for biodiversity loss is … Invasive Alien Species…”. It goes on to say, of course, that Invasive Species control must form part of an integrated approach to maintaining sustainable natural communities. This is important because, of course, controlling the spread of invasive species (like global warming) requires all UN members to co-operate.

What is the UK doing?

It’s too early to know how the above will impact on domestic legislation, but we do know that UK (and devolved) government is devoting more time and effort to these areas. New legislation usually means more money for enforcement plus incentive schemes, especially for farmers and forestry. The arrival of the Environment Act 2021 is a significant watershed in this area but was rather eclipsed by the publicity surrounding the UN Conferences. Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England, stated that maintaining and enhancing biodiversity is one of the key aims of this Act and it will enable the creation of a new Office for Environmental Protection and “help further our joint goals of environmental protection and improvement”. Developers will be required to “ensure an increase in biodiversity through their projects”; this means our members can deal directly with invasive weed management AND help design/create re-vegetation strategies to achieve these long-term ecological goals (Guidance Note: Revegetation following Invasive Non-Native Weed Management).

Raising Awareness

Formal guidance (Regulations) under The Environment Act 2021 will take time to emerge from Defra. But while we wait it seems likely that all of the above is achieving the most important of objectives, raising awareness about the importance of invasive species management both within the property-sector and with the general public. Indeed, if the Environmental Audit Committee get their way, there could be Government funding to train and equip a “citizens army” of public volunteers (to both detect and manage invasives in wild habitats). In this context PCA members can be pivotal; using their skills & knowledge to supervise and/or manage such projects.  Helping land owners and developers understand their obligations (legal duties etc.) and deliver the ‘net gain’ outcomes desired.

What does the future look like? Will we get the environmental policies we need?

I wish I knew (Lottery numbers come to mind)! I don’t, but as this is a blog, I’m allowed to have an educated guess. It seems clear that as much as we might be frustrated about the glacial speed at which these things happen, there is a change coming. A change which will see Environmental protection at the heart of Government strategy, not just an afterthought. The future should look increasingly green and the Government seem committed to passing relevant legislation to enhance habitat protection/creation and stop and/or reverse biodiversity loss.  Partly using existing legislation, partly new. We know that PCA Invasive Weed Control members can and will contribute towards achieving the goals set out above, and the PCA itself will ensure we engage with all the bodies responsible for delivering the policies designed to make it happen. To quote Tony Juniper one more time “essential partnerships (in the end) will be vital to the progress that we must make during the years ahead”.

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