Nature 2017 december

The seeds of our own destruction

This is the first time Brexit has raised its contentious head in my articles (and also a first for Hilltop News – ed). Anyway, my attention was just drawn to a BBC report that the Government is planning to reinforce environmental protection regulations post the UK’s departure from the EU.

Whilst some of these protection measures are aimed at protecting wildlife from the excesses of humans, a significant element is aimed at protecting indigenous wildlife from foreign invaders. Not to mention more aggressive domestic species, which have also benefited from the more recent impact of climate change, and are increasingly encroaching on the territories of more fragile plants or animals. In either case the incumbents find they are vulnerable to being crowded out or succumb to predation.

Coincidentally, I had been reading a book by Richard Mabey who had come across accounts from the last century illustrating that anxiety about invasion by alien species is a much older phenomenon. It does though also seem to peak at times when there is already a threat to the population or national crisis. Whilst Britain was still under threat of invasion from Nazi Germany and there were severe shortages of food, the population, inspired by stories and understandable government-inspired propaganda, was anxious about subterfuge perpetrated by foreign agents seeking to undermine the morale of the population.

Early on during the War a giant puffball was found under an oak tree in Kent. Despite the familiarity country folk would have had with the sight of the beach ball-sized fungus it seems it was initially mistaken as a new type of German bomb. In a quirk peculiar to that age the puffball was put on display to raise funds for the war effort, under the title ‘Hitler’s Secret Weapon’.

Even after the War an account in a provincial newspaper could still cause hysteria. In 1948 a story emerged that, during the war, an extraordinary ensemble of unusual plants had been discovered growing in remote countryside near Box Hill, Surrey. However, as a report written for the local newspaper had been subject to a D-notice, news of the incident had been suppressed. It was subsequently revealed that back in 1943 two botanists had identified over thirty species, none previously known to inhabit this country. Suspiciously, the plants were closely related to well-known British wild flowers; including several varieties of foxglove, woad, motherwort, scurvy grass, and elfdock – a European doppelganger for our dandelion.

Adding to the hysteria, the locality, a large hole in the ground, was suspected to be no normal depression. Once the Daily Mirror got hold of the story the rumours rapidly evolved into a matter of national interest. The paper added further fuel to the story by speculating that the hole was in fact a bomb crater, the result of a device that had been dropped during the height of the Blitz. Furthermore, it was suggested it had been a secret mission by the Nazis: the purpose of which was to deposit poisonous varieties that were indistinguishable alternatives of our favourite and wholly harmless native species. Unsurprisingly, it subsequently turned out there was a much simpler explanation. The seeds had been planted innocently by a local man. No explanation was given for the purpose but the alien species continued to hang on for many years.

After WW2 and through to the late 1970s the Cold War heightened risk of nuclear war and the dawning of the space age spawned a science fiction industry. Perhaps the best exemplifier is John Wyndham’s ‘Day of the Triffids’. This drew attention to the threats from alien species, either from outer space or the Eastern Bloc. Some of you will recall that during a hot summer in 1970 children began turning up at hospitals with blistered arms and legs and the culprit was soon identified as the giant hogweed which happens to be indigenous to eastern Europe and Asia.

So, with the UK already seeking closer integration with continental Europe to offset the threat from the USSR, it was predictable that one tabloid dubbed the plant as “the Triffids that came from behind the Iron Curtain”. Tips were even included on how to “eradicate the Ruskie menace”! Investigating the reason why the Russians were to blame and how this alien plant became so widely distributed I was assisted again by Mabey who pointed to an 1836 article in the Gardener’s Magazine by a horticulturist who had probably been one of the first to import the seeds from deepest Russia:

‘The Siberian parsnip is a magnificent umbelliferous plant… In our Bayswater garden it was 12ft last year when it came into flower. Its seeds are now ripe and we intend to distribute to our friends; not because the plant is useful, but because it is extremely interesting from the rapidity of its growth and the great size it attains in five months… We do not know of a more suitable plant for the retired corner of a churchyard and we have accordingly given one friend, who is making a tour of England and Ireland and another, who has gone to Norway, seeds for deposition in proper places.’

It might be assumed such conspiracy-laden stories were a legacy from times when the nation was at war or threatened with total annihilation by nuclear weapons. However, it seems in the present Brexit climate the media will seek any opportunity involving a non-native species to create hysteria or paranoia about anything ‘foreign’ invading us. In October this year, the Daily Mirror carried a most ridiculous article entitled ‘Invasion of the black ladybirds hits UK: Everything you need to know about STD-carrying Harlequin bugs swarming over the country’. It suggested at the top of the article that these ‘foreigners’ from Continental Europe and Asia might be a danger to human health because of the ‘STDs’ they carried. Only those reading the full article would learn there was no disease, just a fungal parasite that the alien Harlequin ladybird might carry, that it does not pose any risk to us but might affect our native ladybirds. In fact the danger they present is real but is a consequence of the aggressive Harlequin predating the UK species.

It will, no doubt, be a great relief to all of us that once we have exited the EU and can, once again, properly secure our own borders that all these problems of invasive species will be behind us.

That’s all this time. Questions and comments always welcome chrisbrown@rayshill.com