Coronavirus, community conservation and the green recovery

Can a community and volunteer based approach to conservation projects lead the green recovery after coronavirus?

Callum Sinclair, Project Manager, Scottish Invasive Species Initiative
May 2021

As we emerge from the 2021 lockdown, we reflect on the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative.   As a project we weathered the Covid storm surprisingly well.  Although activities were constrained, we kept invasive plant species in check and maintained our mink monitoring and trapping network.  We credit this to taking a community-based approach to invasive species management – and so we pondered what we have learnt and whether other projects could take a similar approach to help deliver a ‘green recovery’ after the pandemic.

Community volunteers in Nairn.

Community control vs Covid

At the heart of the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative are the local people who care for their local environment.  An initial and ongoing programme of awareness raising and education activities raised the profile of invasive species and their impacts. This generated significant buy in and enthusiasm to get involved from land managers, local groups and organisations, businesses, and individual volunteers.  Having recruited and enthused, we support and enable people to actively volunteer by providing training and helping them gain qualifications and experience.  This network of committed people is gaining the skills needed to make a difference to their local places – in this instance controlling invasive non-native species – both now and in the future.

When the spring 2020 lockdown occurred we weren’t, like everyone else, able to carry on as usual. It was unclear if we were about to lose a year and give up the gains made by the project since 2018.  Rather than regress, however, what we witnessed instead were the investments in embedding skills and training with local communities paying back. Farmers and land managers used their staff (trained by us) to carry on giant hogweed treatment when we couldn’t, and local people headed out to pull Himalayan balsam at sites we’d worked on together previously.  Mink raft monitoring volunteers used their daily exercise to visit and check their rafts – telling us that this small activity gave them a purpose and made them feel they were making a difference during an immensely difficult time.  The project didn’t grind to a halt – far from it – in fact we perhaps were able to snatch a glimpse of what might happen when the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative is no more.

We believe that this approach – investing in communities, training volunteers and engaging people locally can provide effective and sustainable benefits – as endorsed by the enthusiasm of our volunteers and partners to carry on invasive species control when we weren’t around. 

To date volunteers have contributed a total of 2,181 days to control invasive plants and 119 volunteers have been put through their pesticide application course.

Building community resilience

Taking a community and volunteer-based approach – rather than just employing contractors on an ongoing basis – also provides benefits to the people involved.  Volunteering, pretty much any volunteering, is much more than just the activity itself.  In our case people are making a real contribution to their local environment. But the benefits are much wider than that. Being involved within their community, meeting other people and socialising, being physically active and engaging with nature – these all contribute to improved physical and mental wellbeing.  We believe these benefits have helped give people greater personal resilience to the individual and collective stresses we have all felt during the coronavirus pandemic.

Our engagement work in communities is wide and varied.  It ranges from providing education resources for remote use and our direct education work in schools, to partnerships with farmers and universities to find alternative and innovative techniques for invasive species control.  Engaging and enabling land managers to be a central part in the  development of potentially more sustainable and affordable invasive control methods – such as sheep grazing to control giant hogweed – helps these businesses to see alternative control strategies and be more resilient to future change.

Our Macduff sheep grazing trial in partnership with a local farmer is investigating if and how managed sheep grazing can be used as a form of chemical-free, low intensity giant hogweed control.

Environmental benefits

This community-based approach, as well as empowering people, also has environmental benefits. 

Invasive non-native species require long term management and commitment.  They often produce large numbers of seeds or have persistent rhizomes and require treatment year on year. The American mink needs ongoing control to continue to depress population numbers and counter inward migration. These animals travel great distances to secure new breeding territories and can quickly repopulate previously managed areas. Having an upskilled, enthusiastic and committed local community group willing to, for example, ‘adopt’ a section of river to deliver annual plant control and/or mink control can be effective through their collective efforts – both  providing sustainable and economically effective approaches to management.

Thanks to the monitoring and trapping work of 360 volunteers maintaining 670 rafts and traps, 388 mink have been removed. This provides benefits to the local native wildlife populations, particularly water voles and ground nesting birds.

Reaping the rewards

Restored river habitats and, in turn, landscapes that are free from invasive species give so much back to us.  Our rivers are important for recreation and provide brilliant opportunities to exercise and have fun or places for quiet reflection to boost mental wellbeing.  The connection between people and nature – widely recognised as providing significant health benefits – is further enhanced when people have directly contributed to the care and conservation of the environment.

The importance of connecting with nature has been widely recognised throughout the pandemic.  Many of us discovered, or rediscovered, our local green spaces and enjoyed, and needed, the serenity these places and being outdoors brought.  

As we carefully step into what, we hope, will be our recovery from the pandemic, we have the opportunity as a society to reshape and rethink the way we do things.   We can find new and sustainable ways to work which provide long-term benefits both to people and the environment – the “green recovery”.  For us at the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative we’re not sure that is actually such a new thing – it’s the ethos by which we’ve worked since we started.

Our rivers are important places for recreation and reflection.

Is the model sustainable?

The approach we take – working locally with partners, communities and individuals – undoubtedly benefits both people and the environment and fosters strong connections between the two. 

Volunteer input to the project – 9,794 volunteer days contributed, equal to 46 full time equivalent staff from March 2018 to March 2021 – is incredible and encouraging.  The work completed through these contributions, given by 650 people, would simply not be affordable to the project otherwise.  Each and every contribution – large or small – is important to us but, perhaps more significantly, important to the person donating their time.

The Scottish Invasive Species Initiative continues to build this community network so the work we have started can be a self-sustaining after we have gone.  The work continued by our volunteers and community network during the 2020 coronavirus lockdown suggests this can be the case. But we recognise that to sustain, connect and coordinate a volunteer network to a common and shared purpose will need support and resources.  Maintaining enthusiasm, preventing ‘volunteer fatigue’, continually recruiting and supporting volunteers, training and providing local co-ordination are all essential to the success of this approach. However, the scale of return we find would suggest these investments are both extremely cost effective and environmentally beneficial.

The scale of achievement in 2020, despite working restrictions due to the pandemic.

So, while the coronavirus pandemic has reached every part of our society and touched so many of us personally, we believe there are lessons from the period that can help us in the future.  Investing in people and communities is always worth it to build support, capacity and commitment.  When investments are maintained the benefits continue.  If those investments cease, then the goodwill and benefits generated from all that has gone before are lost. 

As a project we have emerged relatively unscathed from the coronavirus lockdown – we know many have not been so fortunate. We believe the community-based approach we have adopted and the hard work and dedication of our many, many volunteers have been central to this.  We simply can’t thank these people enough.

To find out more about our work and how to get involved visit our website, follow us on social media or contact us on sisi@nature.scot

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

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

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.