Law Commission’s invasive species advice

Rhododendron ponticum is a real issue for woodland habitats - Kreinero/Wikicommons

Rhododendron ponticum is a real issue for woodland habitats – Kreinero/Wikicommons

Invasive non-native species (INNS) are one of the greatest global threats to biodiversity. Thousands of species have been moved out of their natural range by humans, either deliberately, in the case of some ornamental plants, or accidentally, like rats stowing away on ships. Some are benign and cause no issues, but others thrive in their new environments.

Those non-native species that outcompete native plants and/or animals for resources and space, change ecosystem functioning, are a cause of human health issues, and cost huge sums of money to eradicate and repair the damage they cause are classed as invasive. Estimates say they cost the UK economy alone £1.7 billion, whereas the European Union spends at least €12 billion a year, and figures suggest the damage caused by INNS amounts to around five per cent of the world’s economy. Eradication efforts also require many man hours and resources.

Last year the Law Commission reviewed the state of wildlife law in England and Wales. Its full findings are due out later in the year, but Defra asked them to bring forward advice around the problem of INNS as a matter of urgency. The report can be viewed here.

The Law Commission says existing INNS law ‘does not contain sufficient powers to allow for their timely and effective control or eradication’. It recommends giving relevant bodies (Defra, the Welsh Government and statutory bodies such as the Environment Agency, Forestry Commission, Natural England and Natural Resources Wales) the ability to issue species control orders (SCOs).

SCOs would compel owners or occupiers to carry out control or eradication of INNS, or allow the relevant body to carry out such operations. They would only apply to non-native species that are classed as invasive. For example, the tree bumblebee has arrived in the UK under its own steam and was first recorded in 2001. This is natural species movement and the bee is a welcome addition to Britain’s fauna.

Phytophthora ramorum lesion on beech - Mike Townsend

Phytophthora ramorum lesion on beech – Mike Townsend

The Woodland Trust supports action on the issue of INNS. These species are not only problems in their own right; they can also harbour and support other species of concern. Rhododendron ponticum is able to take over huge areas of woodland, decimating populations of native plants and removing food sources for other wildlife. It is also a host plant for Phytophthora ramorum, a tree killing pathogen that has similarly been introduced from abroad.

Preventing invasive species getting to the UK in the first place is the best action, but once they are here the ability to act swiftly and effectively to eradicate invasive species is paramount. The longer a species has to establish itself the more costly efforts become to eradicate it and the less likely those efforts will be successful. If SCOs help to ensure early eradication that prevents the loss of species and damage to habitats they will be a useful tool in the fight against INNS.

Read more about invasive species work in our Wood Wise publication.

Kay Haw, Conservation Team


About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
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14 Responses to Law Commission’s invasive species advice

  1. Peter Wilding says:

    The intention behind this seems excellent. It might at least send out a message that introducing new non-native species of unknown potential is a bad idea.

    However there could be problems with enforcement if it comes to that. I know from personal experience that dealing with Rhododendron infestations is very hard physical work and dealing with Himalayan Balsam is tedious and needs to be repeated over many years as seeds germinate in cleared areas. It’s not clear that it would be feasible to enforce the new proposal if, for example, the invasive species had been introduced into many people’s gardens. Gardeners do seem to have been a big part of the problem in introducing the species that are of concern at the moment, but given the effort involved, some might be either unable or unwilling to take the necessary action.

    The other crucial thing is speed of reaction. Would the system be able to recognise the issue, classify the new species as invasive, and initiate enforcement, all quickly enough to tackle the problem before the invasion is widespread?

    • Kay Haw says:

      Thanks Peter. I believe the proposals wish to tackle just that. Firstly, the relevant bodies (e.g. Natural England, Forestry Commission, etc.) would have the power to make a species control agreement with the occupier of the relevant land or premises, the owner of the freehold interest in the land or a leaseholder in possession. If after 42 days since the offer the relevant body and the owner or occupier or the relevant land or premises have failed to enter into a species control agreement, or the owner or occupier has refused then a species control order could be made. The species control order would be a legal requirement and if not carried out within a certain time frame then the relevant body would have the power to carry out the work. A warrant could be issued if access to the land or premises was refused.
      They also recommend that it should be an offence for a person, without reasonable excuse, to fail to carry out a species control order, to obstruct a person carrying out an order, or to carry out any operation excluded from the species control order. The recommended penalties are a term of imprisonment not exceeding 6 months or a fine not exceeding £40,000.

  2. jpeggytaylor says:

    It is good news to see that more timely action can – and hopefully will – be taken to control invasive species. Japanese Knotweed and Himalayan Balsam are the two species we see regularly that have usurped native species in some locations.

    • Kay Haw says:

      I hope so too. The plants you mention are two non-natives that are causing our wildlife serious problems and need controlling – but better to stop them early on and prevent the loss of native species.

  3. I agree that many plants are being killed due to vigorous newcomers and others like Himalayan Balsam which is ruining the banks of the River Wye near Monmouth and the Eden near Carlisle.
    I used to work with the BTCV in Northumberland ‘Rhoddy-bashing’ to clear estate land and allow small native wild flowers to regenerate.

    • Kay Haw says:

      Great work Jennifer! We work to control and eradicate species like rhododendron and Himalayan balsam from our sites. It can take time for native plants to re-establish but it is so important to maintain biodiversity in our woods.

  4. Rosemary Mason says:

    What does eradication mean? I can’t find out, for example, whether the law is recommending physical or chemical means for eradication of Japanese knotweed? Can anyone tell me please where I can find it in the document.

    • Kay Haw says:

      Hello Rosemary. Eradication would mean the total removal of the invasive non-native species from land or premises. The Law Commission recommends a species control order must specify the ‘operations which are to be carried out on the land or at the premises for the eradication or control of the relevant invasive non-native species, how and when those operations are to be carried out’ (Recommendation 16:1:c). I assume this means the relevant bodies issuing the SCO would define the methods to be used in eradication or control. In the UK a great deal of work has been done on invasives management and there is quite a bit of information to draw on regarding best practice. Our invasive species issue of Wood Wise has a number of case studies: There is also information available via the GB Non-Native Species Secretariat website:

  5. sue thorne says:

    Thing is we have had non native species invading our shores for hundreds of years, as you say in the blog rats would be one species, the humble bunny rabbit was bought to these shores by the Romans almost two thousand years ago and most people would think it as a native. Whilst I fully support your point, especially about the invasive nature of many so called ornamental plants they are here and we have to cope, however it is vitally important we prevent other invaders from being introduced into our natural environment, animals can sort of be controlled – unless released into the wild by so called animal lovers, the North American Mink springs to mind here – but plants due to weather conditions, water or birds spreading seeds around can’t easily be contained

    • Kay Haw says:

      Indeed Sue, these proposals would help to ensure rapid action is taken on new invaders to prevent them taking hold as other species have done. The ornamental plants that are already here must be managed and this costs many conservation organisations a great deal of time and money each year. It is especially difficult if efforts are not coordinated between landowners, as you may be able to remove an invasive plant from one area just to have it re-invade if there is a population of it growing on other land nearby. If these SCOs can help ensure action is taken across landscapes then biodiversity will benefit.

  6. Peter Kyte says:

    This is good news albeit rather late in happening.

    • Kay Haw says:

      Thanks Peter. Hopefully this will help to stop future invaders from wreaking the havoc that many other species have on our beleaguered native wildlife.

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