GOB 115 – It’s Happening Here!
This article first appeared in Birdwatching Magazine, March 2019 edition
What do the Brown Tree Snake (Boiga irregularis), the Burmese Python (Python bivittatus) and Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) have in common? Both snakes are wonderful in their own environments but a disaster when accidentally introduced elsewhere. The Brown Tree Snake stowed away in decommissioned military equipment to Guam where it has become an epidemic of massive detriment of the local fauna with tree-nesting birds suffering most. In Florida stupid pet owners have ‘given their pet its freedom’ when it became too unmanageable and now there are more there than in Myanmar and they are the ecosystems top predators. Here at home Japanese Knotweed spreads like wildfire smothering every other plant in the process. Like very many invasive it is really hard to eradicate.
Across the world ecological disaster often follows man’s interference, from Cane Toads in Australia (they are poisonous to herons etc) to Jacaranda’s replacing native trees in southern Africa. Niches once occupied by natives get overtaken by invasives spreading disaster everywhere from out competing locals, to poisoning them, swamping their habitat to leaving nothing for local fauna to feed on.
Britain is almost top of the tree when it comes to having introduced inappropriately elsewhere. Our Empire is no more but mustelids ravage New Zealand, rabbits are a plague in Australia and song birds missed by ex-pats abound across the antipodes and the US. Feral cats and goats, pigs and deer kill or oust native fauna on tiny islands and across continents.
Oxford Ragwort Senecio squalidus is native to Sicily where it colonises lava slopes on Mount Etna. It is now well established across the UK, particularly in towns, since it escaped from the Oxford Botanic Garden (1794). Why should we care? Because it is toxic particularly to horses and cattle. Eliminating it, even from one small field requires enormous effort. Every so often other plants imported with grains or deliberately planted in gardens jump the fence and cause problems.
Our ecosystems are robust but faced with the introduction of taxa from other systems huge problems can arise if there are no significant predators or more robust competitors locally.
We cannot turn back the clock across the whole world so are forced to concentrate on those places where most harm is being done and its commendable that efforts are made to eliminate rats and mice from island seabird colonies. But it’s not enough to clear up after the damage is done. We need a cultural sea change – we need to see that the beauty of the environment is all its complex diversity not mawkishly prefer species.
A few decades back some campaigners for animal rights released North American Mink into the countryside – this complete lack of regard for native species has resulted in the deaths of many thousands of other animals and constant efforts to win back native fauna. Some people espouse ‘neuter and release’ programmes for feral cats, allowing them to devastate native small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
Clearly, we are not a nation of animal lovers instead suffering from pet myopia, excusing irresponsible ownership and mislabelling it affection. The pet bird trade drives extinctions and every cuddly pet chimp captured cost the lives of its parents.
By the same token millions of gardeners not only spray noxious chemicals to deter native plants and invertebrates and weed out the food plants of butterflies, continuing to champion non-native flora over exotic imports.
I call for the appreciation of the system of the environment and an abandonment of sentimentality for non-native species either because they are furry (grey squirrels) or have pretty petals (knotweed).