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Efforts to curb invasive species spark battle in UK countryside


Squirrels in U.K.

First introduced by the Victorians, who regarded them as an exotic species, non-native grey squirrels have since supplanted native red squirrels, left, in many areas. Photograph: Alamy


Powered by article titled “Efforts to curb invasive species spark battle in the countryside” was written by Robin McKie, for The Observer on Saturday 23rd August 2014 11.47 UTC

It is an issue that has perplexed writer and composers from William Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde to Gilbert and Sullivan: just what does it take to be a native of these shores?

Most have answered by stressing the spiritual qualities needed to be British or simply by making fun of the notion. But for wildlife experts today, the definition of what it takes to be a true native of Britain is posing major headaches.

Indeed, many believe that government plans to introduce new controls on invasive species – from Japanese knotweed to escaped minks – in the forthcoming infrastructure bill could rebound – with devastating consequences for biodiversity. And they blame the government for failing to provide a proper definition of the term “native species”.

As a result, birds such as barn owls and red kites could be treated as vermin, say scientists. In addition, new species arriving on our shores in a future affected by increasing global warming would also be badly affected.

Owls in U.K.

The short-eared owl, left, is classified as native, but the little owl, right, is not. It was introduced to the UK in the 19th century as a predator of the bullfinch.

“There is currently no clear definition of what is, and what is not, a native species of the British Isles and that is making a nonsense of attempts to curb harmful invasions of non-native species,” said Robin Wynde, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). “As it stands we have got animals that are clearly native but which are going to be labelled non-native and invasive because they were wiped out recently and had to be reintroduced. It makes no sense. We need a flexible, sensible definition of what it means to be a British species, but that is not what we are getting.”

The idea of tightening up the control of non-native species that invade Britain is generally welcomed by experts. Britain is now home to more than 3,000 non-native species – creatures and plants that cost our agriculture, horticulture and building industries an estimated £1.8bn every year.

“Japanese knotweed is extremely difficult to clear and grows back all the time, killing off other plants,” said Wynde. “Rhododendrons spread through woodland and devastate the undergrowth, while invasive crayfish spread diseases. So it is good that action is aimed at halting such invaders. However, the way the government is going about it is flawed.”

The RSPB – along with conservation groups such as the John Muir Trust, the Mammal Society and the National Trust – argues that the government has made a serious error in its definition of a non-native species by relying on a list of plants and animals that is currently enshrined in schedule nine of the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. The government’s aim is to copy this schedule and use it in the new act to define what is native and what is non-native.

Dormouse in U.K.

The edible dormouse, right, was eaten by the Romans but probably arrived here in Victorian times and is classed as non-native. The common dormouse, left, is native, however.


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