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Spend £6 million a year to save £2.7 billion on nature invader costs to the economy by 2040

24 September 2020

Environment groups are urging the Government to commit in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review to spend £6 million a year on preventing invasive plants and animals establishing in the UK. New research estimates this investment would save a whopping £2.7 billion for our economy over the next 20 years by preventing damage from new invasive species – giving an economic return of £23 for every £1 spent.[1]

New estimates[2] and a new report from Wildlife and Countryside Link, the largest environmental coalition in England, also demonstrate that increasing the invasive species defence budget from the current spend of just under £1 million per year, to £6 million per year would:

  • Provide jobs and/or training for tens of thousands of people – boosting our Green Recovery from COVID-19. If combined with a Government-funded National Nature Service, an estimated 4,000 coordinators, 75,000 volunteers and 2,000 contractors would vastly expand the limited Local Action Groups across Britain that are currently tackling our invasive species problem [3]
  • Drastically reduce the increase in invasive species’ costs to the economy by 80%. An estimated 42 new invasive species will establish in the UK by 2040 without Government action. This would cost our economy around £3.4 billion over the next 20 years. But with the investment of £6m p.a. this figure could be slashed by 80% to around £670 million. Saving around £135 million per year.
  • Prevent the establishment of 24 new invasive species and eradicate 10 established invasive species by 2040, helping to protect vulnerable UK species from pests, predation, disease and competition
Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: ‘Ships clogged by mussels, crops and timber ruined by pests, and waterways blocked by weeds all come at a heavy economic price. Invasive species are costly for the economy as well as exacting a toll on wildlife. A relatively small Government investment of six million pounds per year offers a triple win, supporting jobs, preventing the cost from invaders rocketing, and protecting vulnerable UK wildlife.’

Dr Paul Walton, Head of Habitats and Species, at RSPB Scotland, said: ‘We live in a world more connected than ever before. Our precious wildlife is paying the price as invasive species are introduced and spread through ecosystems, often with devastating consequences for nature. As we build new international trading relationships, the threat to nature’s future intensifies. It is time we brought ecological sense to our international trade and travel. For too long the UK has failed to invest in vital biosecurity measures to protect wildlife from invasive species. The Government must act urgently to save future generations from massive costs, and protect the wildlife and habitats that are our natural treasures’

Dr Emily Smith of the Angling Trust, and Chair of Wildlife and Countryside Link’s Invasive Species Group, said: ‘It’s not only our wildlife and economy that invasive species harm. Non-native wildlife can affect our health and wellbeing, with some invasive insects carrying harmful diseases that impact human health and invasive plants reducing our access to, and enjoyment of, green and blue spaces. Species which may be harmless in their native country can have devastating consequences if they establish here. For the sake of businesses, nature, and human health and wellbeing it is vital that the Government invests now to prevent an influx of nature invaders in the next decade.’

Additional quotes from The Wildlife Trusts, British Canoeing, and the Mammal Society, can be found here.

Invasive species are non-native animals or plants which have been introduced to the UK accidentally or deliberately, and which have harmful environmental, social and/or economic impacts. They are one of the top five drivers of biodiversity loss worldwide. Just a couple of key examples in the UK include the wiping out of red squirrels in most of Britain due to a pox virus carried by the invasive grey squirrel, with red squirrels potentially becoming extinct in England in the next ten years, and the reduction of water vole sites by as much as 94% - with predation by invasive American mink having a severe impact.

Invasive species cost the UK economy at least £2.2 billion every year[4], with species such as the Quagga mussel and Japanese knotweed causing damage including loss of crops, increased flooding and additional building construction and repair costs. Costs continue to rise as established species expand their range and with increasing numbers of invasive species establishing in the UK as international trade expands and climate change makes the UK more hospitable to foreign species.

Despite this substantial economic impact, invasive species biosecurity is severely under-funded and under-resourced compared to other areas of biosecurity, receiving a mere 0.4% (£922k) of the UK biosecurity budget. It is also the only biosecurity department without a dedicated inspectorate. This severe underinvestment has led to twenty-five new invasive species establishing in the last 20 years - three times higher than the other four biosecurity regimes combined.

The Environmental Audit Committee has recommended tripling the invasive species budget for on-the-ground biosecurity capacity to £3 million and providing a further £3 million a year for a dedicated invasive species inspectorate.[5] Nature organisations wholeheartedly support these recommendations and are urging the Government to heed the Committee’s advice and make these commitments in the Comprehensive Spending Review this Autumn.

The proposed increased budget of £6m to tackle invasive species would not eradicate all the established species currently in the UK, nor would it be able to prevent all new invasive species establishing. Even with this additional investment the number of invasive species in the UK would still be likely to increase from around 275 today to 283 by 2040, a rise of 8 species costing in the region of an additional £33.6m to the economy each year (on top of the current estimated £2.2 billion p.a. cost). However this Government investment would enable the UK to tackle several of the most damaging species already established here and prevent the most harmful new species arriving on our shores – saving huge sums for businesses, government and homeowners and protecting vulnerable UK wildlife.


Notes to editors:

The next nature invaders - top ten invasive species most likely to impact in the UK
(as ranked by a consortium of invasive species experts, led by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), Summer 2020) are:

  1. Asian Hornet - Vespa velutina
    A number of sightings have been recorded in the UK since the first discovery of a nest in Gloucestershire in 2016, with all so far successfully eradicated. Asian hornets devastate honey bee colonies and other pollinating insects, which has a huge knock-on impact for pollination of plants and crops and associated costs for farmers and land managers. Researchers at Warwick University estimate the hornet could colonise the UK within two decade
  2. Asian longhorned beetle – Anoplophora glabripennis
    There has been one outbreak in Kent in 2012. This led to the felling of 2229 trees, with a quarter of all sycamore trees infested. The source of the outbreak was untreated wood packaging material imported from China. The Asian longhorned beetle causes significant damage in broad-leaved trees, affecting woodland habitats and the wildlife that rely on them, and impacting on timber and fruit tree production. Research on the potential impact in the US (where infestations were discovered and controlled in New York and Chicago) estimates that up to 30% of trees (1.2 billion) and 35% of canopy cover could be lost with a value loss of $669 billion
  3. Asian Bush Mosquito - Aedes japonicus
    This mosquito was first discovered in France in 2000 and is spreading across Europe. It is thought to have been introduced via the sale of second-hand tyres from Asia. It is not believed to be present in the UK currently. This mosquito carries a number of diseases harmful to humans and wildlife. Research in the laboratory shows it can potentially transmit Zika virus (which can cause severe microcephaly brain damage in babies and Guillain-Barré syndrome) and zoonotic Usutu virus (which causes mass mortality in birds, and in humans can result in mild disease to severe neurological impairments). It has also been shown able to transmit West Nile Virus which can be asymptomatic or can cause encephalitis, meningitis, flaccid paralysis and even death.
  4. Comb jellyfish - Mnemiopsis leidyi
    Sightings were recorded in the Ouse Esturay in 2016 and have been recorded since 2006 in the North Sea off the Netherlands coast . The comb jellyfish is a carnivorous predator, feeding on zooplankton, fish eggs and larvae. In areas where it has established as a non-native species, including the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, it has massively reduced biodiversity and decreased fish stocks, with impacts felt up to top predators such as seals. It has the potential to reduce UK fish stocks, limit food for seals, dolphins and other UK sea mammals, and reduce biodiversity in UK waters.
  5. Salmon fluke - Gyrodactylus salaris
    Salmon fluke have not been recorded in Britain yet, but pose a significant disease threat to native salmon populations. The salmon fluke is a tiny freshwater parasite less than 1mm long that attaches to the body and gills of fish in the salmon family. Despite its small size it can cause serious infectious damage to fish and therefore deplete fish stocks. It originates in Russia and Finland where salmon are tolerant to the infection and it does not harm them. In Norway where it has become established salmon stocks have been wiped out in more than 20 rivers. It is a major threat to the UK salmon industry.
  6. Chinese mystery snail - Bellamya chinensis
    The first European recording of this snail was in 2007 in the Netherlands. It was probably introduced through the aquatic pet trade and can be spread by boating and similar activities. It is not believed to be in the UK currently. The Chinese mystery snail spreads quickly. In the Netherlands twelve water systems (mostly rivers) had established populations of the snail within 9 years of the first sighting. The snails are large and resistant to chemical treatments, so once established they are very hard to remove. It can outcompete native snail species and has an economic impact through the blocking of water pipes – for example in reservoirs. It also poses a potential (though unproven) threat to human health, as a transmitter of parasites that it hosts.
  7. Two-leaf Water Milfoil - Myriophyllum heterophyllum
    This freshwater plant is established in Europe in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain. It was introduced through the aquarium and water gardening trades. It was first recorded in the wild in the UK in 1941 in Halifax. It is thought to not be established in the UK. Two-leaf water milfoil is an aquatic plant native to southeastern USA. Described as ‘one of the worst invasive species in Europe’ It has a tendency for uncontrolled growth and can form dense underwater mats which harm native wildlife through reduced sunlight, oxygen and water quality. The plant also causes economic and social harm through reduced water flow and impediment to swimming, boating and fishing. It clogs up water bodies and can affect drainage, irrigation, hydropower and drinking water, incurring large costs to manage. In the USA, it has been recorded as reducing house prices by 20–40% when the species grows along lake shores.
  8. Sea Myrtle - Baccharis halimifolia
    Introduced as an ornamental shrub to the UK from North America in the 1920s and known to be invasive in coastal habitats in Europe and Australia. Currently recorded in the wild in three locations in Southern England and Scotland. This shrub is a successful survivor and can cause problems taking over habitats from native species. It is one of the most prolific seed producers in history – with just one plant producing hundreds of thousands of seeds per season. Its ability to survive fire, thrive in a wide-range of soils, and cope with salinity, sun, shade and extreme wet conditions, means it can grow in most conditions, spread widely and be hard to eradicate.
  9. Emerald Ash Borer - Agrilus plannipennis
    Not yet recorded in Britain. It was first recorded in Europe in 2003 in Russia (Moscow) The Emerald Ash Borer is a beautiful yet destructive wood-boring beetle native to East Asia. All ash species native to Europe and North America are susceptible to this beetle. It has caused massive damage to ash species in North America. In Ohio alone potential related ash landscape losses, tree removal and replacements costs, are estimated between $1.8 and $7.6 billion.
  10. Cauliflower sea sponge - Celtodoryx ciocalyptoides
    First discovered in Europe in Brittany, France, in 1996 where it has established. It is also established in the Netherlands. Not currently believed to be established in Britain. This sponge is native to the Northwest Pacific. Imports into oyster farms from Japan are the likely cause of introduction to Europe. It is highly invasive posing a serious threat to native habitats as it quickly becomes dominant due to its rapid growth and coverage.

Facts and Figures:

  • There are currently an estimated 275 established invasive species in the UK (Source GB Information Portal Project Score Card 2017)
  • Expanding global trade and climate change is allowing more species from further afield to establish in the UK. Before 1950, 44% of invasive species establishing in Britain were non-European species – that figure has risen to over 70% today
  • The estimated annual cost of managing Japanese Knotweed in Britain is £165m. To eradicate it would cost around £1.56 billion – proving it is much more cost effective to prevent a species from arriving, than to manage or eradicate it once it has a foothold.
  • Invasive species have been involved in the extinction of 68 out of the 135 bird species lost in the wild globally over the last 500 years (Source RSPB)
  • Please see RSPB’s helpful invasive species page for further background, facts and figures

The Wildlife and Countryside Link report and the calls in this release are supported by the following organisations: Angling Trust, A Rocha UK, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, British Canoeing, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Institute of Fisheries Management, The Mammal Society, Plantlife, The Rivers Trust, RSPB, Salmon and Trout Conservation, The Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust

[1] Please see details of Wildlife and Countryside Link’s calculations here
[2] These estimates are calculated using data from the GB Non-Native Species Secretariat
[3] In 2020, 10 Local Action Groups ranging in size completed a survey for the GB Non-Native Species Secretariat on their work. From these surveys it was calculated that there were an average of: 2.57 members of staff and 51.5 volunteers per group. The work completed by these groups was split into the following proportions: 37% completed by staff, 46% by volunteers and 17% by contractors. It is believed that there are around 72 active Local Action Groups, giving an extrapolated total of 185.04 members of staff and 3708 volunteers. These cover an estimated 5% of land / INNS activities. If extrapolated to 100% coverage that gives 3700.8 staff, 74160 volunteers and 1700.4 contractors (based on a ratio of staff: contractor as 37:17). These figures have been rounded to estimate that 4,000 Local Action Group staff, 75,000 volunteers, and 2,000 contractors are needed to provide a network which covers the whole of Britain.
[4] CABI’s 2010 report, commissioned by Defra, estimated a cost of £1.7billion to the economy. Just taking account of inflation this would now be at least £2.2billion, and the increased spread and number of invasive species would make this figure higher still.
[5] This would enable enhanced rapid response capabilities, maintenance of specialist and expert capacity in the face of emerging threats, and more strategic coordination.

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