Twitter LinkedIn

Invasive species: politics and public opinion

Invasive species are often deemed low priority, or downright ignored, in political and public spheres.
Adam Barnett, RSPB, explains why now is the time for that to change.
Read more in Link's new report: Prevention is Better than Cure.

September 2020

No-one denies that the spread of invasive non-native species is one of the biggest threats to our wildlife. The IPBES report ranks invasive species as one of the 5 principal drivers of biodiversity loss worldwide - and the journey of invasive species through Westminster has been similarly eye catching. In October 2018 the House of Lords EU Environment Committee published their report on Plant and Animal Biosecurity after Brexit, which stated that ‘effective biosecurity measures are critical to protecting animal, plant and human health’ with this, in turn, ‘protecting our environment, our economy and our food supply chain’. In October 2019 the Environmental Audit Committee published the outcome of its Invasive Species inquiry, with the equally robust conclusion that ‘invasive species harm biodiversity, animal, plant and human health and bring large economic costs’, and as a result of this the Committee endorsed several recommendations including tripling the amount of funding and creating a dedicated invasive species inspectorate within Defra – both of which Link has long been advocating for.

The case for robust action on invasive species continues to grow. They are now estimated to cost the UK economy at least £2 billion per year, yet out of the £220 million that the Government spends on biosecurity annually, only £0.9 million is directed to invasive species – a grand total of 0.4%. Water companies alone spend £4.6 million every year, with similar investment from industries such as rail, construction and rural businesses. Invasive species contribute to 40% of animal extinctions, and the UK now has one of the largest presence of invasive species globally, with the arrival of 10 new ‘problem’ species every year.

Yet the level of interest in invasive species from politicians remains low, and the issue is consistently under-represented within Westminster’s political-environmental debate. One reason for this could be that tackling invasive species can be seen to run entirely counter to the current grain of Government activity. 2020 - Covid aside - is the era of ‘Global Britain’, with the Government aiming to seize the benefits of Brexit by building free ports and pursuing trade deals with countries beyond Europe, with less priority given to ensuring the maintenance of high animal welfare, food and environmental standards. Increased international trade is one of the main drivers of invasive species: more trade, and less oversight of the workings and content of this trade, threatens to dramatically increase the number of species arriving in the UK. Because of the weight of Government support behind a ‘Global Britain’, action on invasive species could become somewhat of a political non-starter. The lack of much political debate on invasive species in turn lends strength to the feeling that invasive species isn’t politically contentious, leading to a lack of political pressure and no perceived urgency.

Invasive species also maintain a low public profile, with sparse coverage beyond the occasional shocking story involving Asian Hornets or Japanese Knotweed. The potential impact of invasive species seems irrelevant to most of the population. Cases are often geographically limited and mainly involve specialist groups such as farmers and conservationists – or even occurring on entirely uninhabited islands such as the UK’s Overseas Territories. The impacts of incidents, whether concentrated or spread out, are also frequently not obvious to people who aren’t trained ecologists. And when the public does engage with invasive species it can be difficult to communicate the science behind conservation activities such as culling, which invasive species sometimes necessitate. Activities such as containing grey squirrel and rat populations, or culling corvids to protect nests of protected or endangered species, can prompt public outrage despite being justifiable on conservation grounds.

The ‘out of sight’ nature of invasive species means that action is often delayed in favour of other more visible and seemingly more pressing environmental issues, like air pollution or the maintenance of green spaces, despite the huge cost/benefit ratio associated with taking action now on invasive species compared to in one or two decades’ time, and the relatively minor annual cost to government of £6 million.

The language used when talking about invasive species can also act as a deterrent for bolder campaigning. Sophie Yeo recently published an essay in Inkcap which compares the language of invasive species to the xenophobic language used to describe migrants – species are ‘invaders, uncontrolled and aggressive’, as well a threat to the country’s native plants and animals. The Government itself is calling for a ‘citizens army’ to improve ‘biosecurity’. This simplicity hides the fact that not all non-native species are invasive, and some native species are harmful – and nature has never been sedentary. NGOs or politicians can - perhaps even unconsciously - err on the side of caution and avoid focusing on invasive species for fear of the word associations or potential political hijacking.

Much like the ecological crisis is often second place behind the climate crisis for politicians, invasive species can sometimes play second fiddle to other areas of conservation policy and advocacy. A combination of the low level of nuanced political and public understanding, high potential for misunderstandings and controversy, and its inherent conflict with the direction of Government policy, all lend it to being labelled ‘low priority’. The reality is that, especially in a post-Brexit United Kingdom, the spread of invasive species will rise dramatically without appropriate policy interventions, and could result in numerous species of plants and animals being reduced in their range or becoming extinct entirely.

To counter this, it’s important that we stress the urgency with which action is needed on tackling invasive species, highlight the aspects of the political context that are impeding progress, and emphasise the links to more widely recognised issues such as climate change and urbanisation - not to mention the disastrous impact it will have on our wildlife and economy. We need to simultaneously stress that invasive species will cause the decline of numerous ‘iconic’ species, whilst rethinking the language and framing that we use to talk about these issues. With the CBD and COP26 next year, and the Brexit deadline looming, it really is in a sense the perfect storm for realising stronger political action.

Read more in Link's new report Prevention is Better than Cure: A Diagnosis on the state of UK invasive species biosecurity.

Adam Barnett, Senior Parliamentary Officer, RSPB

Follow @Natures_Voice

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.