The Good, the Bad and the Balsam

Karen Müller, Project Officer, Scottish Invasive Species Initiative
September 2019

Himalayan balsam season has drawn to a close. On our river banks, our staff and volunteers have downed tools for another season. The time has come for the last of the pink-petaled invaders still left standing to be pinging their seeds from ripe pods in an endless effort to increase their range. But with thousands of plants degrading in piles on the banks and tens of thousands of seeds prevented from ever reaching nurturing soil we are happy to call this a job well done, for now.

It’s time to reflect on the last few months – our highs and lows, ayes and nays, lessons learned and casting our eyes to the future.

Getting to grips with balsam

This year’s waves of heat and rain appear to have been particularly favourable for balsam, with many areas dazzling with shades of pink. To counter this, a continuous thwacking of weed whackers, scythes and strimmers against balsam stems, the sound of soil releasing roots and the popping of hollow stems under the weight of more balsam being added to piles has filled the air over the last few months. There has been a flurry of volunteer activity across the project area, making it possible that river banks from Tayside to Sutherland have decidedly less of a pink hue to them.

Volunteers come in all shapes and sizes and the one lovely thing about balsam is that its control is suitable for a wide range of ages – from primary school children to people living out their best life in retirement – and can be done in larger groups. It’s the perfect way to meet new people, partake in a hands-on activity with your kids or spend some relaxing time in nature while trying something new and helping the environment. Whether it is anglers, dog walkers, bird watchers pulling a few plants when they are out and about or individual people, schools or organisations that specifically join us project officers for a balsam bash – many a mickle makes a muckle in the battle against balsam.

Compared to other invasive plant control, balsam provides instant gratification when you look back on the area you are working on – nothing makes your chest swell with pride like knowing you have just built the highest balsam pile yet of the season. And let’s not stop there, optical illusions, balsam snowmen, a spot of friendly competition who can build the biggest pile or who can scale the finished pile the fastest and stand victoriously at its summit – the pile is your oyster.

Unquestionably, balsam control is not always all sweetness and light –the plant is willing to make use of many kinds of growing spaces and so we found ourselves thigh deep in ‘bogs of eternal stench’ or crawling around in gorse on more than one occasion. Did it stop us having fun? Of gorse not!

Through the good times and the tough, plenty of opportunities to whip out the Kelly kettle, freshly brewed tea and coffee (not the instant kind, mind!) and, most vital, chocolate biscuits, support us in keeping our volunteers in top motivation.

Time to reflect and perfect

So, what have we learned over the past two seasons through trial and error? For one, we have stocked our armoury well with strimmers, scythes, weed whackers and gloves since last year – something to counter anything the balsam might throw at us.

Selectively pulling balsam from amongst other vegetation seems to have the least impact on non-target species, if compared to mowing down stretches of bankside vegetation at more badly infested sites. But, if you’re working on borrowed time, you sometimes have to face the hard hitting questions. Mowing is effective in terms of time and effort and, thus, usually prevents a much larger proportion of seeds from dropping. So, do we mow in the hope that after a couple of seasons we have adequately reduced the density and can move on to pulling the balsam up? Or shall we pull regardless of the fact that much less can be achieved in the same amount of time? It is important to ponder these quandaries and often we have to make decisions on a case by case basis, depending on the existing vegetation, how dense the balsam has become and its potential to spread from there.

As it gets later in the season the balsam is really out to impress, growing up to two meters in height. At times the stems are growing horizontally along the ground before reaching its flowers towards the sky and roots start to form on higher leaf nodes, digging into the soil where the stem touches the ground. The trouble with this is the increasing likelihood of snapping the stalk during pulling, followed by the balsam stubbornly re-growing from the left over stem. A weed whacker can be really handy here to slash the stalk below the first node closest to the ground and curbing the balsam’s ambitions once and for all.

Casting our eyes on the future, there are always things to improve. For one, we still need to understand the distribution of balsam throughout our catchments better, so that we can control it strategically from the most upper extent moving down the river. We really appreciate reports of sightings to help us with that. The species is widespread and we know that long-term, sustainable solutions require landowners who actively take responsibility and more volunteers to support the effective removal of the plants annually. While many landowners, local communities, environmental groups and countless more are already getting involved we need to increase these efforts catchment wide moving forward.

Last but certainly not least, both this year and last year it is a must to acknowledge that every single one of our enthusiastic volunteers is absolutely wonderful and invaluable! You make it a joy to get to grips with balsam and you make the improbable possible. Not all heroes wear capes – some wear waders and gloves!

If this has inspired you to get involved with the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative or you’d like to find out more, visit our website www.invasivespecies.scot or email sisi@nature.scot

Getting to grips with Invasive Species -Top Five Tips for Balsam Bashing

A great blog here from the folks over at Nairn Green Hive project who’ve been working on the invasive Himalayan balsam around Nairn with us.

Nairn River Enterprise and Green Hive

Green Hive volunteers relax with James (SISI co-ordinator) on the  biggest balsam pile after our balsam bashing experience at the Riverside Fun Day

We’re fast approaching the end of the season for Balsam Bashing – a massive thank you to everyone who has helped out and spent time clearing Himalayan Balsam this year, the Riverside and surrounding area looks completely renewed after all your hard work!

Green Hive volunteers working alongside Scottish Invasive Species Initiative (SISI) have managed to clear over 2 acres of balsam from our banks!

We would also like to thank James the SISI co-ordinator for taking time with us to train and demonstrate various methods for invasive species removal. You can have a read through the “species spotlight” on Himalayan Balsam on the Summer 2019 SISI newsletter here

In the next couple of weeks the balsam plants will have ripened their seed pods, making removal very…

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A word from a visiting volunteer

Viola Kleinicke, 3 week placement volunteer

After I had finished school I was looking for a job, project or organization where I could gain new experiences. I worked a lot in hotels, restaurants and coffee shops but I wanted to find something totally different before starting my apprenticeship in occupational therapy.

Accidentally, I found out about the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative (SISI) project on the internet and fortunately they agreed to host me for a three-week internship. In advance, Karen and Al (the local SISI Project Officers) helped find accommodation for me in a shared student apartment and for the second part of the internship I was camping at the Findhorn Foundation.

Finally, my internship started and I was welcomed by friendly, warm and funny people. Most of the time it was hard work, crawling through bushes to find and cut Giant hogweed, but it felt easy because of the fun and laughs we had together.  I also had the opportunity to take part in an animal tracking course, learned about invasive species, and I learned a lot about the anatomy of birds and fish.

I was amazed how diverse the tasks in this kind of job are: On top of the work against invasive species, the work demands a lot of creativity – at events I coloured in fish masks with children and I helped to craft a giant hogweed with paper, felt, glue and wire.

I would recommend to everyone who likes adventures, being in nature, new tasks and wants to get an insight to a varied job, to take the chance to volunteer with the SISI project. Thanks to the three project officers (Karen, Al and James) I had an unforgettable time, a lot of fun and on top of that I got to see beautiful, unpopulated places in Scotland.

 Thank you Al, Karen and James

Hogweed munching sheep at work

Al Reeve, Project Officer, Scottish Invasive Species Initiative, June 2019

In an era where people are increasingly environmentally aware and there is a move away from the over-use of chemicals we want to investigate a solution to invasive species control that can be done inexpensively, at low intensity, and with minimal environmental impacts….so, enter the humble sheep!

This trial project by the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative is a practical experiment to discover if a land manager could use sheep to control a substantial giant hogweed invasion. A previous sheep grazing trial, by the Deveron, Bogie and Isla Rivers Charitable Trust at Auldtown (near Huntly) which began in 2013, shows that in a controlled environment, sheep can make light work of giant hogweed infesting a field. (Read the Auldtown Grazing Report). However this new trial is not just about measuring the impact of the sheep on the giant hogweed and woodland environment, but of the real life example of managing the site and sheep from the farmers perspective, recording the successes, failures and lessons learned from the outset.

The new trial site is at Kirkside Farm, Macduff, where we are working in partnership with the Gordon family who farm here. It is a 1km stretch of woodland sandwiched between arable fields and the River Deveron. Giant hogweed has begun dominating the woodland, particularly around the sunnier edges, and along the numerous streams that flow through the wood to the river. In the past, attempts to control the giant hogweed has been via pesticide application using a knapsack sprayer, which proved very time consuming and costly. Due to the scale of infestation and the difficult terrain of the site so far little progress has been made in restricting the giant hogweed’s expansion.

After fencing in the site, in April this year we released 25 sheep into the woodland area, asked dog walkers to keep their dogs on leads and waited to see what happened… and for the first month, nothing did! The sheep lazed around the entrance to the site, maybe due to the new environment or maybe because they had never eaten anything other than grass before.

During this time we started mapping the extent of the hogweed through the site both though ground surveys as well as using drone footage (courtesy of TAHR Media) to visualise the infestation. Working in partnership with The University of Aberdeen we will be monitoring the site and have developed a base map of the hogweed which, after an annual survey, we can compare to. We have also identified 40 monitoring spots where we will measure the effect of the sheep on the rest of the woodland vegetation.

As time went by though, we started to pick up more indications of the sheep growing in confidence with clear trails developing through the wood showing where the sheep had been walking as well as a few nibbled hogweed stems.

Fast forward a couple of months and the sheep have well and truly gained a taste for the hogweed. There are now large patches of much-munched hogweed, a huge change from previous years. It’s worth mentioning here that sheep don’t actually kill the hogweed plants just by chewing on them but by restricting the plants from flowering they are slowly removing the amount of energy stored in the hogweed’s tuberous roots. Hogweed take 3 or 4 years to mature before finally sending out a flower spike to release seeds but by continually grazing the plants sheep can stop the older plants from flowering and mow down new seedlings as they emerge from the soil.

The alternative control method of using a broad spectrum herbicide like Glyphosate results in the killing of the target plant but, however carefully applied, also results in some collateral damage of the other species surrounding it. This has the effect of opening up the soil which enables more hogweed seedlings to germinate and fill the newly cleared space. One of the many benefits of grazing as a control method is that the ground flora is not killed off and this acts as a barrier against hogweed seedlings emerging.

Despite the great work of the sheep this year, there are still some patches of hogweed that have grown too big and dense for the sheep to get on top of and so this first year has not been a complete success, but we’ve learnt a valuable lesson – next year we need to get the sheep on site earlier in the year. However, on a positive note we’ve been delighted by the response of the site users and dog walkers in acting responsibly and the local awareness raising and signage has been a success.

The sheep will stay on site for a few more months and hopefully continue their good work and we can get a fair idea of what their impact has been so far. Next year, we can act on our lessons learned and improve our methodology.

This is a multiple year project and one of the outputs will be to develop practical and useful advice to empower other land managers to use sheep – or other livestock – as a means of controlling invasive plants on their land. This will include public open days and site visits etc. as well as written findings.

This project truly is a work of collaboration and the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative would like to thank all the partners for their continuing support and input; the Gordon family of Kirkside Farm, The University of Aberdeen, the Deveron, Bogie and Isla Rivers Charitable Trust, the Macduff Distillery and the local people of Macduff.

Filling my wellies with water

Cally Day, SISI Volunteer, June 2019

Cally has been volunteering with the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative (SISI) for a year and shares her experiences with us of her time volunteering so far.

I was studying applied science when Karen from Scottish Invasive Species Initiative (SISI) came along to the college to give us a presentation explaining her role as project officer, which included, conservation work and reaching out to the community to help identify and tackle the problems we are facing with invasive species along our water courses. As Karen went on to explain in more detail about the activities her role involves the entire room turned to focus on me. Everyone who knows me understands how I love to be outside investigating and seeking out anything out of the ordinary. Hearing about her talk about her work and the benefits to the native wildlife and biodiversity, really had me interested. That was what I wanted to do. I got in touch via email immediately with Karen who works within the Deveron, Bogie and Isla rivers catchment area, and with James who works within the Lossie, Nairn and Findhorn rivers catchment. They both put me to work straight away…

Cally (right) with SISI project officer Karen (left)

My first volunteering expedition, and I call it an expedition because it was exactly that. Karen took me to a stretch of the river Ugie in Aberdeenshire which to say the least was varied terrain. We were surveying the presence and amount of the invasive non-native Himalayan Balsam plant. Along our route we encountered some overgrown bramble, nettles and some boggy areas which I almost lost a wellie in. I fell to the ground many times, which was mostly due to my lack of balance and finesse. However, it was a superb experience and we had some serious fun along the way. There was an area of intense overgrowth so we decided to it would be easier to cross the river onto the other side. No-one fell in, which was a real achievement, although we made sure that we were perfectly safe by choosing a relatively low and slow running area to cross, but the wellies did fill up. Fortunately, it was a scorcher of a day and during our lunch break I was able to dry my socks out. I think we must’ve walked about two and a half miles that day, and did what we set out to do, survey complete. I wasn’t sure if Karen would take me back out with her again or if she went away thinking I was a bit of a liability, but thankfully we have tackled the rivers many times since, mostly controlling Giant hogweed.

Finding Giant hogweed

James also got in touch and offered me my very own Mink Monitoring Raft, which I was delighted about. He came and explained how it all works and gave me information about what I could look out for and left me to it. It’s always very exciting to go and check a raft for any signs of wildlife. I have had several prints but none of them mink, which can be a positive sign. I have seen otters down by the river while I have been down checking my raft, which is always nice to see. Since James gave me my first raft, he offered me a second raft along a different stretch of river which again I was happy to agree to. When I go to the river to check on my rafts, I usually spend a few hours there just taking in the surroundings and taking that time to relax. I noticed other signs of wildlife presence, including footprints and padded down plants, holes in the embankments and feathers, so I bought myself a trail camera. Since I have set it up, I have had footage of roe deer, badgers, mice, pheasants and lots of various native birds.

Mink monitoring raft

I have been learning as I have been going along from the project staff, I have attended events including Wild about Aden, which is a family event within a country setting for all ages. We set up an information stall for SISI which was a public engagement role. Spending a couple of days engaging with the public, educating them about the invasive non-native species and their effects improved my confidence and I was surprised at how much I had learned in the short time I had been working with them. SISI has also given me the opportunity to attend courses, including the pesticide spraying course where I gained my certification which now enables me to use pesticides to treat invasive plants.

Treating Giant hogweed with pesticide

There have been so many opportunities in my first year working as a volunteer with SISI that I would never have expected, which I am very grateful for. It has been very rewarding seeing the impact we are making on embankments of the rivers and streams, and successfully handing over the opportunity and support to landowners to take the reins and continue.

I have been out many times now with Karen, James and Al on long days of Giant Hogweed control and my fitness levels have improved remarkably. I have noticed that my breathing has improved and my balance too. I can carry weights of 15 litres on my back and walk for many miles. But most of all, my mood is always on top form when I am out and about with them. They are a super team to work with.

Helping SISI project officer James light the Kelly kettle to make a brew

I have a lot of exciting times ahead with SISI and a lot more conservation work to do which I am looking forward to. Thanks SISI.

And thanks to you Cally 🙂

Back to basics: grey squirrels in Scotland

Guest BlogGill Hatcher, Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrel Project, May 2019

It’s ‘Invasive Species Week’: an opportunity to talk about the threats non-native species can pose to our special wild places, our natural heritage, and global biodiversity; as well as what people can do to help. But often the first challenge in raising awareness is simply explaining what ‘invasive’ means. It’s not a household term, and it can be a complex – and sometimes controversial – subject to discuss.

Perhaps none more so than the grey squirrel. The grey squirrel is equally one of the most familiar examples of an invasive species in Scotland, and the most clouded in confusion, misinformation and emotion.

Grey squirrel

The eastern grey squirrel is a North American species that was first brought to Britain to decorate the gardens of Victorian stately homes. With an abundance of food and fewer competitors to contend with, they quickly settled in their new surroundings and began to spread across the country.

As the only squirrel species native to the UK, red squirrels struggle to compete with grey squirrels for food and living space. Some grey squirrels also carry squirrelpox, a virus that doesn’t harm them but is deadly to reds. As grey squirrels have moved into an area, reds have gradually disappeared; and today greys have completely replaced reds throughout most of England and Wales, as well as Scotland’s Central Belt and the city of Aberdeen.

In many of these places grey squirrels have been present for well over a hundred years, with the native red squirrels barely a distant memory. So for many people in the UK today, grey squirrels are the norm. In cities and towns, they are often one of the few wild mammals people come into regular contact with, providing a rare connection with nature. It’s not surprising that many don’t realise that grey squirrels are not native, that red squirrels were once widespread or even that the two are different species of squirrel. Before we can even begin to explain the term ‘invasive species’, we often have to start with the basics if we want widespread understanding and support for red squirrel conservation action in Scotland.

Red squirrel

While raising awareness of the threat from invasive grey squirrels, it’s also important to emphasise that there are still many places in Scotland where red squirrels are thriving. Home to 75% of the remaining UK population, there are healthy populations in the Highlands, the Central Lowlands and parts of South Scotland. Red squirrels are under threat, but they are still very much worth saving.

Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels is a partnership project led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Established in 2009, its aim is to protect Scotland’s red squirrels by combating the spread of grey squirrels. With the help of landowners and volunteers, grey squirrels are being controlled through live trapping and humane dispatch in the areas where this action will have a positive impact on core red squirrel populations.

In 2017 the project was awarded a £2.46 million National Lottery Heritage Fund grant to begin a new phase called ‘Developing Community Action’. Recognising that landscape-scale community involvement will be the key to the long-term protection of Scotland’s red squirrels, the project is now focussing on building a strong network of local volunteers, providing them with the skills and resources they need to carry out red squirrel conservation work in priority areas. The first step is community engagement: building a basic understanding of why red squirrels need our help and why, at this time, control of grey squirrels is the only way to ensure red squirrels will continue to have a home here.  

Community involvement in red squirrel conservation

One way to start this conversation, and one of the simplest ways people can help the project is by reporting red and grey squirrel sightings. The sightings map contributes to our understanding of squirrel distribution across Scotland, and it could act as a stepping stone to getting more involved. There are lots of ways to take action for your local red squirrels, from survey work, to grey squirrel control, to helping spread awareness by volunteering at an event.

You can report a sighting and find out more about volunteering with Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels at scottishsquirrels.org.uk

Photograph credits; Grey squirrel -Bob Coyle, Red squirrel & community action – Jo Foo

Invasive Species Week

Vicky Hilton, SISI Volunteer & Comms officer, May 2019

This year Invasive Species Week is being held from 13-17 May, the purpose of the week is to raise awareness across Great Britain about invasive species and their impacts.

Being a project all about invasive species, here at the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative, we’re quite excited about having a whole week of all things invasive and we’d love everyone to share in our enthusiasm and get involved!

There are lots of ways to get involved in Invasive Species Week, you can join in with a practical hands-on volunteering session to remove invasive plants, adopt a mink raft, go on a guided walk, drop in on one of the pop-up stalls or follow our social media posts throughout the week to learn more about invasive species and what you can do to make a difference.

Here’s a list of events we and our partners are running during the week – click on each event to follow the link to our website where there are more details.

If you can’t make any of the events, don’t worry you can still stay involved in Invasive Species Week! Follow us on social media on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we’ll be posting lots of information all week about invasive species, what to look out for, what to do about them, alien facts, what things everyone can do to help, gardening tips etc.

Or why not take the initiative and do your bit in your local area? Learn how to identify Himalayan balsam, (download an ID guide here), an invasive plant found growing widely along river banks and head out with a friend (always advisable not to work alone near a river) and go and pull some up! It has a really shallow root system so its easy to pull by hand, put it in a pile away from a path to compost or hang it roots up from a fence/tree (so it doesn’t re-root). It might still be quite small at this time of year but it’s great to pull it and remove it before it flowers and spreads more seeds.

Removing Himalayan balsam

Don’t forget to share how you’ve got involved in Invasive Species Week with us on social media – tag us into your posts and let us see what you’ve been up to!

Invasive Species Week is coordinated by the GB Non Native Species Secretariat. Read more about the week here.