Hey! That’s Not Knotweed (and other games I’ve been playing this week)

For some confluence of reasons I’ve yet to adequately clarify, the role of inspecting reports of Japanese Knotweed around the whole Borough has now fallen in my lap like an ugly and unwanted child (OK, yes, I need to work on my similes). I’ve spent hours I don’t have to spare over the last few months chasing up reports from the public and on at least 50% of occasions, this has turned out to be a wild goose chase*. So before you do pick up the phone or write a missive to your local greenspace manager, it might be worth playing a little game I’ve devised: Hey! That’s not knotweed!

sunflower“I’ve just spotted some Japanese Knotweed in one of the lovely formal gardens on the Park. You must come and get rid of it immediately before it overtakes the bedding!”

  • Hey! That’s not Knotweed! – It’s a Sunflower! Give it a while and it’ll have a nice flower on the top.bindweed

“There’s Knotweed creeping all up the fence on the edge of your reserve and if it gets into my property, I’m going to sue you!”

  • Hey! That’s not Knotweed! – It’s a Bindweed! The creeping part being the clue.

dogwood“There’s a band of Knotweed in the hedge along the boundary of the Pavilion. Can you please make sure it is removed immediately.”

  • Hey! That’s not Knotweed! – It’s Dogwood! It is the boundary hedge, you berk.dock

“There’s a whole heap of Knotweed growing in with the nettles on the edge of the woodland. It would be a shame if this colonised the rest of the site because of your neglect.”

  • Hey! That’s not Knotweed! – That’s a dock. Leave it alone.

sycamore“We’ve got little stems of Knotweed coming up all through the woodland. It’s everywhere!”

  • Hey! That’s not Knotweed! – Come on, you’re not even trying now. That’s Sycamore. Which, yes, actually I will still remove that though.knotweed

“I’ve got Japanese Knotweed in my garden, can you please come and remove it or I wont be able to sell my house.”

  • Hey! That’s…actually, that is Knotweed, but it’s your bloody house, why are you calling me?

But yes, Japanese Knotweed is a massive pain and can be a right arse to eradicate. The level of hysteria it causes is beginning to become vastly disproportionate to the amount of damage it can cause though. This is particularly evident in householders (which I am aware is not always the householders fault). Before reporting though, please do take a minute to check that you know what you are looking at and for the love of God, please do not think that threatening me with legal action is actually going to make the stuff disappear any quicker.

*A point of interest – why Wild Geese? Are they particularly hard to chase? Judging by the fat greylags on some of my sites, I can’t imagine they are.

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People Are Just the Worst. And So Are Goldfish

Work in conservation for any length of time and you’ll gradually find yourself becoming a glum misanthropist. It might even have happened to me already. I just don’t know. Maybe it seeps out occasionally in this blog. Do flag it up if you spot it.

This week someone has decided in their infinite wisdom that what the ponds on the reserve really need is 150 goldfish of varying sizes dumped in them. Great. Fantastic. Thank you once again ‘the public’. You really are a bunch of unmitigated arseholes. If I find the person responsible, I’m going to make him eat every single one hundred and fifty of them.

goldfish

They’re clearly orange

Why is this so bad? Well, firstly because the ponds on site are rather good for Great Crested Newts. With goldfish in this pond, we can pretty much wave them goodbye. They’ve also dumped them at just the point when they are about to spawn; you can see them getting frisky already*. The combination of this and the presence of Great Crested Newts makes me tentative about electro-fishing them out. That’s if we even had the money to. And the time.

But the worst part is that I just know if we don’t get them out sharpish, then the public – bless ’em – are going to get attached to them. They’re going to become a ‘feature’. People are going to start feeding them. Which is going to make it even worse for me when I come along and brutally euthanase the lot of them. Apparently a little calculated pescicide will make me the bad guy. Ludicrous.

So I’m open to suggestions. What’s the best way to get rid of these aquatic interlopers?

* I should also point out that it is completely illegal. But you knew that already.

This Week I’ve Mainly Been Fighting Cherry Laurel

I’ve been having some issues with Cherry Laurel on one of my woodland sites since I took over in the New Year. For those of you unfamiliar with this git of an invasive, it’s quite similar to Rhododendron. It’s very tolerant, quick growing and evergreen and can shade out huge areas of woodland understory, impeding native flora. It’s also pretty ecologically useless; I’ve been inspecting large stands of it on the site and I’ve yet to find any birds nesting in it (or even any around it). There are often midges and something’s been having a go at the leaves, but the invert. habitation seems to be pretty low.

cherry laurel

That stuff back there

There’s a very definite advance line of the stuff – you can see it originating as thick barriers used by some of the hideous mock-Tudor mansions that border the ‘rich side’ of the site to stop the plebs from the estates round the ‘other side’ getting any ideas (I imagine). They’ve undoubtedly caused more damage than the occasional burnt out moped and bit of graffiti I get from the ‘other side’. The centre, semi-ancient woodland, is mercilessly free of the stuff, but it’s thick around the edges and I’ve decided that what’s needed is my own Maginot line and my own Schlieffen Plan of attack (yes, I realise this makes me both allies and axis in this scenario, and that I’m mixing my World Wars).

Normally I’d have the stuff cut by big, burly men (and women) with chainsaws and treated with potentially carcinogenic herbicides, but no money, you see. So it is once again all down to that hardy mainstay of the conservation movement – the volunteer fueled by industrial levels of tea and biscuits.

leatherface

The contractors are in and keen to get to work

One of the annoying things about laurel is that if lopped laurel branches are left to lie on the ground, they can take root and sprout new growth. In a perfect world, I’d burn the stuff (fire, the great purifier, solves so many problems), but the woodland is quite closed canopy and I don’t really like burning past March (however, one of the few saving graces is that because of the aforementioned avian aversion to the stuff, as long as it’s had a thorough check beforehand you can pretty much fell it year-round).

So my current method to avoid regrowth is to make a raft of any dead wood and then stack the laurel on top (mattocking out the roots where possible, or just bludgeoning them with a hand axe to let water and disease in). At first, this does produce a large and slightly unsightly brash pile, but after a couple of weeks, it’s already noticeably squashed down.

Where possible, we also built the rafts on top of newly cut laurel stools to prohibit regrowth. In September, I will probably come back and put a match to the whole lot…this has caused some panic; cherry laurel contains cyanide (or something similar) and some people have been a little concerned I might poison local residents. I’ve been assured it’s safe. I guess we’ll find out. If I disappear come the autumn, you’ll know why.

The area already looks hugely different, with a drastically increased light level hitting the woodland floor. I’ll be tracking the laurel regrowth and ground flora for the next few years. Anyway, a bit of a ‘this is what I did at work this week’ post there. But what did you expect? I’ve been busy. Stop complaining.

Is Environmental Education Ruining Nature For Me?

Things have been a little quiet on Adventures in Conservation recently (I know, I know, this has obviously had a devastating impact on you all, for which I can only apologise. I can only hope your Christmas was not ruined pondering just what the hell had happened to me). For the last month or so, I’ve been getting to grips with some new nature reserves and areas of woodland to monitor and manage, so my hands have been a tad full. But it was while wandering one of these sites that I finally felt a surge of inspiration to propel another aimless missive into the void.

Recently I’ve been questioning whether an environmental education – or working in the sector – ruins one’s enjoyment of the nature. I’m beginning to suspect I was better of ignorant and happy. As such, this week my walk around one of the new (old), spangly (muddy) areas of woodland under my dominion followed a familiar pattern:

Ah, Compartment 1. Management plan says Ancient semi-natural woodland. Lot of cherry laurel in here, bit of bloody Rhododendron too – we’ll need to get that bugger cut, treated and cleared. Not sure we can afford that.

Rhodi

Bah!

Comp. 1a – Glade: Well, it might have been a glade once upon a time. When was this last cut? It’s scrubbed over. Bugger. Chalk it up as a volunteer task.

Comp. 2: Management plan says there is a excellent display of bluebells here in early summer. I bet they’re bloody Spanish.

Comp. 3: ‘Local volunteers have been working to cut back encroaching woodland into the meadow area’…Gods, need to teach them to cut back to ground-level. Place is a trip hazard!

Comp 4: Coppice. Lapsed. Do we have the man power/volunteer will to bring this back into rotation? Probably not.

Comp 5: Secondary woodland. Backs on to housing. Green waste over the garden fence. We’ll have to have a word.

Crassula

Gah!

Comp 5a – Pond: Shopping Trolley. Overhanging vegetation on all side. Is that Crassula? Oh bugger, that is crassula.

And on and on and on. It’s possible that learning more about nature – or perhaps more specifically, getting overwhelmed by management plans, habitat designations, schedule of works etc. etc. – has taken the joy out of it all for me. Or, to quote someone much better at this stuff than I: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

Or something like that. Perhaps I should just stop being such a curmudgeon. After all, this week I have been paid to – amongst other things – fall in a stream, plant trees, cut trees down, burn things, peer into hedgerows, and generally gad about making a nuisance of myself in a picturesque woodland. Things could be a lot worse. I once boxed cheese for a living.

Aliens and Alcohol – A Beery Diversion

As a subscriber to a London-based ecologist internet group, I get a lot of emails that pertain to important conservation developments and findings in the Capital. I also occasionally get emails about beer. Unsurprising, we’re ecologists after all. This week, someone pointed us in the direction of Bexley Brewery – complete with shiny new Ring-Necked Parakeet logo.

Perfect, I thought. What better way to decide whether an alien species has become ‘naturalised’? No more tricky questions about land-bridges, Ice Ages and Romans – you know the British have taken you to their hearts when you turn up on their alcohol labels.

A tasty new measure of invasiveness

A tasty new measure of invasiveness

So what’s in? A quick scrawl through the internet reveals that along with Parakeets we should be removing Ruddy Ducks, Muntjac and Grey Squirrel from Schedule 9. But what else? Have you seen any others? Apparently people have been making beer out of Japanese Knotweed

This alien species business could be more fun – and more headache inducing – than I ever imagined.

Giant Hogweed – Summer Scare Season

They’ve tried with foxes, they’ve tried with false widow spiders, they even tried to get Steve Backshall to be mean about Jellyfish – but now, a ‘certain brand of newspaper’1 is finally getting some traction with Giant Hogweed. Yes, it’s summer scare season and the papers are here to remind you that you should all fear nature!

Triffid or Giant Hogweed?

Triffid or Giant Hogweed?

Thing is, Giant Hogweed really is rather unpleasant, it really should be removed wherever it is encountered in this country and it really can cause some quite serious harm through something called phytophotodermatitis (I’m sorry, my biochem days are long, long behind me so I can’t quite bring myself to go through the physiology here, but my basic latin suggests this is something to do with ‘Plant-Light-Skin’??). There is, admittedly, something rather triffid-esque about them, looming over you out of the undergrowth. They can even cause blindness if they get at your eyes2. So maybe they’ve got this one right for once, maybe we should start barricading the doors and constructing makeshift weapons out of broken-up pieces of furniture and kitchen utensils. Well, no. Obviously not.

Now I’m someone who has often stated that having a healthy fear of the natural world is no bad thing, but clearly education, not overzealous use of a flamethrower, is the key to winning this war against our potential vegetative overlords. The Mail has, predictably, gone all apocalyptic on the subject and are advocating liberal application of Glyphosate (despite only recently warning against it themselves and with the Soil Association also coming out against spraying the stuff around willy-nilly).

They are compared, superficially at least, to Cow Parsley, and though any botanist worth his salt will of course scoff at this, there is some resemblance. That is before it makes a race for the sky and begins to tower over you. This is all predicated on the notion that most people can actually identify Cow Parsley in the first place; something that I would wager is perhaps not as universal outside of rural areas as most journos assume. Round and round again, this comes back for to the need for wildlife education and the importance of our natural vocabulary, so at least our small people are able to name the thing that’s just attacked them.

It’s not as if they are a new phenomenon. Inevitably it was those damn Victorians again with their penchant for plucking peculiar-looking plants on their itinerant floral tour of the Empire. Someone probably thought it would add much needed height to their borders. They’ve been here long enough and are prevalent enough for people to know better by now, so at the very least I can hold up these articles and say to any doubting teenager ‘See? See? Environmental education is important after all.’

1Incidentally, is the sidebar on the daily mail website the most repellently vapid thing on the internet?

2Hang on, that wasn’t the Triffids though, was it? That was meteors or something…note to self – re-read Day of the Triffids, it’s excellent.

Larkhall Park Dawn(ish) Chorus

Today, I thought I’d combine an ode to urban green space with a spot of Citizen Science, but as it turns out I’m far too lazy to get up for a proper Dawn Chorus. I just don’t have the constitution and innate masochism that would consider 5 am as a reasonable time to get up. And so it’s a not-entirely-pathetic 7 am before I bimble (if one can bimble at 7 am) the embarrassingly short distance to my local park.

'Welcome to Larkhall Park'

‘Welcome to Larkhall Park’

Larkhall Park, if I’m being brutally honest, doesn’t have a great deal going for it. It appears to be one of those green spaces the local council has earmarked as an important local resource and has thus taken the logical step of tarmac-ing over it and installing ‘facilities’ to enhance this amenity value. But I digress, I was here to talk about birds

I may be late, but the birds are still active and chirping away and there’s a low mist still hanging over the Park like a bad metaphor. It’s the kind of early morning haze that were I of a more artistic persuasion might provoke a particularly verbose elegy. But I don’t generally go in for that sort of thing.

First, I hear the House Sparrows whirring and churring in the climbers by the wall, bombing in and out, back and forth. They’re much more active at this time of day than is decent. They’re not the only ones. It seems the people of Stockwell are also wide-awake, but then I’ve always suspected they are not entirely right-minded round this way.

Robins and blackbirds are, of course, ubiquitous, as are Blue and Great tits. One of the latter appears to be mucking about with his song, throwing in odd ad-libs just to confuse me. They tweet as a young woman walks past, staring at her phone, (this is where, had I been made of sterner stuff, I would not have baulked at making a joke about both using tweets to announce their location and activity. But I didn’t. So that’s all right then). She’s rather emphatically attired for this time of day and I hesitate to say ‘walk of shame’ but…well…

Robins know no shame, though. They’re busy with their back and forth barrage, each declaiming their own hard-earned property and demonstrating their superior vigour and strength to all these other pretender Robins. An early morning exerciser (or, more accurately, lunatic) also stakes out his territory and shows his fitness. He claims the outdoor gym equipment, helpfully installed for those without the imagination to exercise without mechanical aids, as his own. I feel ever so slightly inferior, but also safe in the knowledge that my own choice of bird watching as a past time is much more attractive to the opposite sex. At least, that’s what I’m choosing to believe.

Eastern European men drink their pre-work Zwyskie, but the only avian migrants I hear are a solitary onomatopoeiaic Chiffchaff in the trees, going through its dull repertoire. Seriously, Chiffchaff, change it up once in a while. No Blackcaps yet. I am, thankfully, too early for the rendering screech of the Parakeets (are they ever described as anything other than screeching?).

Avian Marmite

Avian Marmite

A mistle thrush lands, lonesome, in the middle of the football pitch, parades around a few seconds, before making for the trees in a bobbing flight, one of the three dogs being walked across the Park giving desultory chase. Goldfinches sit atop a squat tree near the exit. They’re not going through their full twitterings (which, due to some odd connection in my brain, always recalls Tie-Fighters. Don’t ask), they’re merely squeaking back and forth, much as the dogs are grumbling at each other.

The pigeons (all Feral, I think) sit silently, and patiently, in an all-but barren tree that my poor winter tree ID suggests is a completely novel species. They’re waiting, I’ve no doubt, for the old lady who strews a whole loaf of stale white beneath their perch. The less said about that, the better. There’s something sinister about them in this mist – I wonder if they’ll turn on us if she doesn’t arrive on time?

I’m about to leave when I think I hear something utterly baffling and it’s only after I turn my good ear back from whence I came (yeah, ‘whence’) that I pick out the source as yet another one of the peculiar thrums and beeps that periodically emanate from Stockwell bus station. Not for the first time, I think to myself that I’m glad I don’t know what goes on in there (trust me, it’s nothing to do with stationing buses). I’ll leave that to the pigeons. They know something, I’m certain, but they’re not saying a word.

Canada Geese – Scourge of your local park

Do you live in a town or village? Do you have a local pond? I bet it’s got Canada Geese on it, hasn’t it? Do you gather a great deal of pleasure from going down to the pond and throwing bread at their big, stupid honking faces? No, I thought not. Because, of course, you are a thoroughly ecologically literate person, yes? And if you are not, well, take my word for it – Canada Geese are just the worst.

canada goose

Look at my big, stupid, honking face

Take a trip down to that local pond of yours this afternoon and you might ask yourself, just why is the water that colour? Why is there so little plant life in the water? And how the hell did I find myself slipping over and falling face first into the pond only to find myself assailed by indignant swans? Blame the Geese. That’s what I usually do. Canada Geese, you see, have the rather remarkable ability to poo about once every six minutes, so much plant matter do they need to consume. Imagine that? Well, ok, don’t imagine it. Especially if it’s lunchtime. OK, consider the ramifications of that. Not only do they denude ponds of vegetation, but they then nutrient load the water so highly that algal blooms are about the only thing that can survive. Think of the knock-on effect this might have on other wildlife.

How do we deal with it? Well, if you’re a little out of the way, you can shoot them, but in more urban areas (where public opinion and understanding may not be entirely on your side) egg pricking, or smothering the eggs with paraffin helps to reduce their stunning fecundity. I did have an idea about running a ‘grab a goose’ day on my particular patch the other month, but given the glowing comments volunteers have given me about how much they enjoy seeing the Egyptian Geese and even the terrapins, (yes, the bloody terrapins!) I can’t imagine this would go down overly well.

I’m not the first to suggest eating invasives to tackle the problem (and recently, the Guardian argued against this, though using Lionfish as an example). But previous articles about eating Canada Geese have perhaps (DAILY MAIL LINK ALERT) not been couched in the most persuasive of terms – oh lordy, just read that and you might realise why both the Daily Mail and the hunting fraternity (or what people assume is the hunting fraternity) are so hated in some quarters…‘A Baronet acquaintance of mine’ indeed.

Eating Canada Geese, though? Maybe that could work. Of course I would not encourage you to nip down to the pond under the cover of dark and try and snatch one. Absolutely not. I absolutely wouldn’t suggest that, should you be struggling to make ends meet, or are just naturally curious, then Geese represent a readily available source of free protein that with just a little bit of effort could feed a family for days. Neither should the fact that I’m linking to sites giving tips and recipes for geese convince you that I would advise it. But just in case my effusive insistence that you do not go out and catch yourself a Canada Goose is not enough to deter you, I would direct you to the relevant legislation and license requirements for such an endeavour.

Chinese Water Deer Hypotheticals

As is becoming a bit of a thing in this section of the blog, invasive and alien species can be used as examples of wider issues in conservation – ethical and moral issues, operational issues, logistical issues, political issues – This time it’s Chinese Water Deer.

Weird-looking - hence my empathy

Weird-looking – hence my empathy

The main reason I’ve chosen to discuss Chinese Water Deer here, apart from the fact they look like weird, tusked teddy bears, is to address a moral and ethical conundrum; Chinese Water Deer in the UK now account for an estimated 10% of the whole population. In it’s natural range, (in China, obviously) it is listed as near threatened. As seems to be a common theme with invasives in this country, its origin can be traced to those pesky Victorians and their insatiable curiosity and desire to pilfer things from other countries and cultures (see the British Museum). There’s more, better, discussion and information to be found out there than you will in this post, which is mainly just a jumping off point for some wild speculation. Namely, what happens if that ‘near threatened’ listing deteriorates – say to critically endangered? And imagine that, concurrently, here in the UK Chinese Water Deer become a real threat to, oh I don’t know, Water Voles. Or Hen Harriers (Admittedly, I have no concept of how they could possibly be a threat – even with the tusks.) Do we have a duty to remove them or conserve them? It’s enough to give one a headache, but there are situations where this has occurred with other species.

This is a long way from being the case with Chinese Water Deer, who, on an entirely subjective note I would love to see preserved in this country – I have a peculiar fondness for the truly out of place and odd-looking mammals that call the British countryside home, the more bumbling the better. They add character; at least that’s my argument. As ever – and because I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time behind a desk than in the field recently – I’m dealing in hypotheticals. Chinese Water Deer present no pressing danger to our native fauna and flora, there aren’t battalions of tusked, furry faced invaders out there hunting down every last Natterjack Toad. Although it’s an arresting image. But should they one day turn on a protected species in a fit of pique, we need to know whether to reach for the gun or to corral them all and ship them back to their homeland – I think that’s important. Probably. Don’t you?

Coypu – An Invasive Removal Success Story

To prove that it’s not all doom and glum when I discuss invasives, this month I’ve chosen Coypu– primarily as an example of how an invasive pest can be successful eradicated. So long as they annoy the right (or wrong?) people.

capybara

Capybara > Coypu

Coypu are large rodents (you can read a bit more about their morphology etc. on wikipedia, I can’t really be bothered to write that bit). They look pretty cool, but not as cool as the Capybara, if I were going to rank large rodents. Which I’m not. But if I were…

Farmed in the early part of the 20th century for its fur, it inevitably escaped from some rather lax security on East Anglian fur farms. It proved to be pretty destructive and damage and loss of reed beds started to occur around the Broads. There was certainly the potential that this could detrimentally impact on breeding bird species. However, this isn’t what ultimately sealed their fate; the Coypu unfortunately made the fatal era of impinging on farming concerns through its burrowing and disturbing of irrigation channels.

The Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food as it then was, acted with uncharacteristic alacrity and a population estimated at around 50,000 at its peak was eradicated in the space of 20 years. There are rumours that they still persist in some areas, though – we do love a mystery animal in this country.

So what lessons does this have for us today? Does this have absolutely any relevance or impact to a current invasive?

Well, an obvious comparison is the American Mink, an incredibly damaging species for native wildlife, in particular Water Voles, which the Mink are able to predate with ease. They also escaped from fur farms during the same time period, and exist in much lower numbers than the coypu reached. So eradication should be simple, yes? But the only effort being put into their eradication mainly comes from wildlife charities. It’s no stretch at all to suggest that if they were even rumoured to be a serious threat to cattle as Bovine TB vectors, they’d be gone within a year.

From my own experience chasing wallabies (yes, wallabies again), I know that though the ecological ramifications of their presence on a Ramsar wetland site were important, the impact on local farming concerns perhaps held greater sway. Unfortunately said farmers refused to let me survey their land, and therefore this angle was not really covered and the Wallabies were therefore never in danger. Shame that.

The lesson for any potential invasive species must be – eat or out-compete the native wildlife as much as you like, but for heavens sake don’t touch the crops.

So, yeah, wouldn’t you look at that? I managed to be glum about it after all.