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Non-Native Invaders – A Brexit Risk or Opportunity?

What I love about nature is its variety. Species evolve together and when one species evolves in a way that gives it an advantage, sooner or later another species evolves in a way that takes away that advantage. It’s this continual process of adaptation and counter-adaption that stops any one species dominating all others, leaving plenty of species for us to enjoy!

But will this continue?

October 2017

Humans are constantly moving species from native habitats to ones where they’d never naturally occur, causing species that never evolved together to co-exist. Mostly this doesn’t matter as the non-native species aren’t adapted to their new environments so struggle to survive. But a small number of non-native species not only survive in their new habitats, but thrive in a way that causes them to dominate their new homes.

It is when a non-native species comes to dominate its new environment that it becomes known as an invasive non-native species. These invasive non-native species are able to dominate as the native species haven’t evolved to compete against them for food or shelter, or sometimes to even protect themselves from being eaten by the invader. And by the same token, native species also often haven’t evolved to eat the invader. So without the natural population brake that competition and predation provide, the invader simply thrives.

And sadly invasive non-native species are a big problem; in fact invasive non-native species have contributed to over 60% of all recent global extinctions and are currently the world’s second biggest driver of extinction. In other words, invasive non-native species are something all nature lovers should care about.

But what’s this got to do with Brexit!?

Well, domestic laws to tackle the threat from invasive non-native species are pretty poor across all four countries of the UK. And the best law we currently have to protect our nature from invasive non-native species is the EU’s ‘Regulation on Invasive Alien Species’. The Westminster Government is to be congratulated on committing itself to fully retaining this law after Brexit. But many questions remained unanswered as to how this will be achieved.

How will the regulation be made to work across all four countries of the UK without the co-ordinating function of the European Commission? How will the UK continue to co-operate with the EU on invasive non-native species surveillance and management? Will the Governments of the UK commit themselves to regularly updating and refreshing which of the most dangerous invasive non-native species should have restrictions placed on them? Will the independent scrutiny of an expert scientific panel be maintained? Will the Governments of the UK commit to looking at special provisions to protect the seabirds that nest on our wonderful offshore islands?

Link Partners across the UK are working hard to hold all four Governments across the UK to account on these matters.

Further risks?

A clear risk from Brexit is that during the conversion of the EU Invasive Alien Species Regulation into UK law, we lose the provisions that make the Regulation strong in the first place. But are there any other risks?

International trade is the most common way invasive non-native species move around the world - either as traded goods or while hitching a ride on other traded goods. Although we can’t yet know what the UK’s post-Brexit trade will look like, it seems possible that some of our currently small trading partners will grow in importance; increasing the likelihood that a whole new set of invasive non-native species could reach the UK.

Brexit Opportunities

Yes, changing trade patterns could increase the UK’s vulnerability to a new range of invasive non-native species, particularly if current border-biosecurity controls are weakened to facilitate this trade. However, Brexit could also be a fantastic opportunity to reduce the threat of invasive non-native species to the UK.

We cannot know for sure what control the UK will have of its borders post-Brexit. But, it seems likely the UK will have greater control than it does now, providing a huge opportunity for the UK to become a world leader in biosecurity. And we shouldn’t forget that strong biosecurity isn’t just good for nature, it’s good for the economy too: Government figures estimate invasive non-native species cost the UK’s economy over £1.7 billion annually.

But will the Governments of the UK realise and seize this opportunity? Will we start to see the resources needed to protect ourselves and the UK’s nature from the threat of invasive non-native species? Only time will tell, but Link partners will be working hard to make the necessary safeguards a reality.

Danny Heptinstall

Policy Officer, RSPB

Follow Danny @warblings and RSPB @Natures_Voice

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