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Many years ago, I was writing environmental and gardening columns for an English language publication in France.
I wrote a piece on Japanese knotweed, a plant that has become a real problem in many countries.
Introduced to Europe in the 1800s as a garden exotic, this rampant plant soon began to make a nuisance of itself. It sends its root down to a depth of three meters and spreads them horizontally as widely as seven meters.
Those roots can penetrate concrete and road surfaces and can even knock down walls. Eradication is extremely difficult as any morsel of root that is severed and left in the ground simply carries on growing.
The price of clearing ten acres of ground for the London 2014 Olympics was 70 million pounds.
The problem is not restricted to the United Kingdom. Right across Europe, this plant, which was imported purely because it looks pretty, has taken hold and is becoming a nuisance.
It has also found its way into forty-two states in America causing the World Conservation Union to declare it one of the worst invasive aliens in the world.
That little article triggered a series of articles about invasive species, and by the end of it, I still hadn’t scraped the surface of those aliens, just in France.
The ragondin is a member of the coypu family, originally imported to this country for the fur trade. When that business model collapsed, many breeders simply released their stock into local rivers and waterways. There, they quickly became problematic, blocking streams, depriving indigenous species of food, and burrowing into river banks.
The creatures are edible, and I have enjoyed both ragondin stew and paté. I assumed that this was a problem that the French would simply eat their way out of.
Unfortunately, the French are repulsed at the idea of eating these pests and prefer to stick to foods that they are more familiar with, such as snails and frog’s legs.
Next came the invasion of Asian hornets. We have an endemic hornet, but we weren’t prepared for the arrival of its smaller cousin from Asia. This little ninja is far more aggressive, and their sting can prove lethal for those with an allergy.
They also favor honey bees as a tasty supplement to their regular diet. They will hover outside of a hive and then just pick off the bees as they come and go about their daily business.
A beekeeper friend of mine spends hours in front of his hives swatting them with his badminton racket, though he does say his backhand has improved dramatically.
The Box Tree Moths
Last year, we saw wave after wave of box tree moths that swept through the southern half of the country like a plague. Each morning there would be a white carpet of these creatures, laying beneath outside lights and street lamps.
It is their caterpillar that causes the problem. They quickly strip lush box trees to bare skeletons, and many of them never recover. Much of the under-story of our forests was made up of these trees, and many areas simply don’t look the same, and probably never will.
These moths come from China and Japan and were first spotted in Germany in 2006. They probably came in on imported box tree plants for garden use.
Free from natural predators, they have gradually made their way across Europe and into the United Kingdom, leaving devastation in their wake.
There are more than seventy invasive species of plants, insects, and animals in France. In the US, that number rises to over five hundred.
There are different estimates about the cost of the damage they cause each year, but the one you hear most often is 1.4 trillion dollars globally.
The definition of an invasive species is one that causes economic or environmental damage in its new home, and yes sorry folks, that includes the domestic cat as well.
Of course, the one invasive species we prefer not to think about is our own. We, humans beings, have casually invaded every continent and country on earth and done inestimable damage in the process.
Indeed, in all of the cases I have mentioned above, the evidence clearly points to the fact that we were the primary culprits who initiated the invasions.
Our arrival generally follows a pattern. Colonize a new area, drive out the native species, including plants, animals, and people, if we can’t eradicate them altogether, and then replace them with more profitable substitutes such as farming, forestry, or industry.
The original inhabitants that survive are eventually restricted to zoos, parks, reserves, reservations, or homelands of one sort or another.
The interesting thing is how vehemently the colonizers defend their right to maintain control over their new domains. Suggestions that some of the original inhabitants should be allowed back is very often met with fury and large amounts of self-righteous indignation.
The new colonists insist that this would infringe on their rights to territory that they now regard as theirs alone. The fact that the result has often been massive environmental degradation doesn’t appear to enter the argument. Clearly, it is a case of winner takes all — regardless of the aftermath.
The buzzword among environmentalists at the moment is rewilding. It stems from the belief that if we simply leave areas of nature alone, she will heal herself with very little intervention on our part.
Trees and forests will reappear, and along with that will come all of the related fauna and flora. What rewilding proponents are hoping for is that the natural corridor will be established so that wildlife manages to maintain a toehold in the environment we have wounded so badly.
This might not seem an unreasonable hope. It is inexpensive, and where it is being practiced, the successes have been breathtaking. Unfortunately, this concept almost always faces huge opposition where ever it is presented. The new colonists simply don’t want to share what they now regard as theirs.
I grew up in a colony in Africa, and I would like to offer a word of caution to those who cling too tightly to what they regard as their territory. Be careful.
Those former colonies were eventually taken back, and the process was a bloodthirsty one. Unless we learn to accommodate nature, the repercussions will hurt us all.
Thank you for reading.