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The aliens have landed

Posted 02/10/2012 by cgodfrey

The aliens are taking over the planet, paraphrasing a comment last month by Europe’s environment commissioner Janez Potocnik. And they pose ‘genuine threats to local ecosystems, crops and livestock, threatening our environmental and social well-being,’ noted the accompanying press release from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC).

Mercifully, the aliens in question are not extra-terrestrial, but refer instead to non-native organisms that become established in a new environment. While most present little risk, nevertheless those that do can cause enormous damage. And with globalisation and the ease of international travel, the JRC warns that the numbers of alien invaders is increasing alarmingly – with an economic impact estimated at around Euros12bn/year in Europe alone.

Two new initiatives have been launched last month to better understand the problems and protect biodiversity. EASIN, the European Alien Species Information Network, attempts to answer some of the basic questions: how many non-native plants can be found in the Alps, for example? Which animals were deliberately or accidentally introduced to the Danube? And how big a threat will they become to local wildlife? In the UK, meanwhile, a new Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative is focused on protecting the country’s trees and woodlands, threatened by the spread of new pests and diseases brought about by international trade in plant products alongside climate change.

According to an inventory by EASIN, Europe currently hosts more than 16,000 alien plant and animal species, of which 10-15% have spread and cause environmental, economic and social damage. Species like Giant hogweed, signal crayfish, Zebra mussels and muskrats, for example, are reported to impact human health, cause substantial damage to forestry, crops and fisheries, and congestion in waterways.

On the tree front, the UK’s BBSRC reports increasing outbreaks of new Phytophthora pathogens, oak processionary moth, horse chestnut leaf miner and Dothistroma needle blight affecting commercial pine and potentially native Caledonian pine forests, not forgetting the continued acute oak decline, of unknown cause.

Interestingly, from my own local perspective where this particular alien invader grows rife, the JRC estimates the cost of Japanese knotweed alone in England, Scotland and North Wales at Euros205m/year. A botanist friend assures me it tastes a bit like rhubarb and is a source of resveratrol (also found in red wine and chocolates) for anti-ageing supplements.

Cath O’Driscoll – Deputy editor

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