During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’ve been joining NatureScot staff and partners working along our shorelines and watery places to gain an insight into the important and varied work they do. This month we hear from SISI project officer James Symonds about vital work to control invasive species along our rivers.
The Scottish Invasive Species Initiative (SISI) is a 4-year partnership project to manage riparian invasive non-native species and American mink across large parts of northern Scotland. The initiative is led by NatureScot together with ten fishery trusts/boards and the University of Aberdeen.
In my role, I’m responsible for the management and co-ordination of invasive species control across four rivers in Moray and Speyside; the Spey, Findhorn, Nairn and Lossie. But what does a day in the ‘office’ look like post-lockdown? Well, my workday generally starts far too early as a father of two small humans! But after finding coffee and feeding the rabble the first thing I do is check my work phone and the “Mink Police” app we use to check mink trap activation overnight.
Live capture traps must be checked at least once every 24 hours to meet animal welfare requirements. The Mink Police units send updates for trap locations, removing the need to check each trap in person each day. I can remotely check trap status and, crucially, know if an animal is captured which needs my attention. This means we can legally deploy traps in physically remote locations or where we don’t have a volunteer to complete daily checks and I can monitor multiple traps across a wide area myself.
After breakfast I check the weather for today’s activity – Giant hogweed spraying. The weather’s good so I reconfirm the session with the volunteers, collect the equipment for the day and stock up on supplies en-route to the site.
After meeting and greeting today’s volunteers, I complete the essential risk assessment and tools talk. Often we work on uneven terrain and today we are tackling Giant hogweed – a plant with photo-toxic sap. We also have COVID-19 working practices to explain. Volunteer safety and welfare is our top priority.
Having donned protective clothing and filled knapsacks we set to work – we are spraying about six acres of riparian woodland with frequent sizeable Giant hogweed stands. Pre-coronavirus we would have a volunteer team deployed – battle hardened, dedicated and qualified hogweed assassins – but today it’s three people to allow for social distancing. We work in a zig-zag upstream, treating all hogweed in our path.
We started at 10.00 am it’s now 12.30 pm – break time – and we set up camp on the riverbank. Normally I would pull out the Kelly kettle, tea and biscuits – chocolate hobnobs if lucky – demonstrate how to make a fire using a steel and natural tinder and volunteers would have a go at fire lighting. We appreciate our volunteers’ contributions and try to keep each day varied and fun – that way they might come back! Sadly, this year volunteers bring their own flasks and there’s no fire making.
We spray on and treat the whole woodland. We’ve worked hard but it’s been fun. As a reward we finish early, 2.45pm instead of 3.00pm! I’m nothing if not generous….
While we were working a mink volunteer has called – there’s a captured mink on another river. I’ll visit as soon as I’m finished here. The trapped mink is a large specimen and I have the task of humanely dispatching the animal quickly, quietly and discretely. I take some basic measurements and sex the animal. It’s a male – identified by the small matchstick-like bone between the hind legs – the baculum.
Dispatching mink is not enjoyable – but it is essential. The mink is a voracious predator and can have devastating impacts on native wildlife. For example, since the introduction of mink, UK water vole numbers have declined by more than 94%. They also predate on ground nesting birds, amphibians and fish, and happily take domestic fowl.
I get home, change a nappy, and follow up with tomorrow’s volunteers. The forecast is wet so instead of spraying Giant hogweed we will decapitate the flower heads using pole saws. I’m just about to email volunteers when my 4-year old runs in and rugby tackles me – it’s time to finish work.
Invasive species control work is seasonal. When we are done with Giant hogweed, we move to pulling or slashing Himalayan balsam then, as autumn looms, switch to spraying or stem injecting Japanese knotweed.
The threats invasive non-native plants pose vary in one way or another but they are all successful in our climate and our native flora cannot compete with them. If left unchecked we face biodiversity losses, destabilisation of riverbanks and different ecosystems to the native ones we should protect.
It’s been a productive day and there’s a real sense of achievement seeing the difference made in a short space of time with so few people. I’ve missed working with larger volunteering groups this year – but we hope to safely welcome everyone back next season. The volunteering opportunities we have offered this year have never felt so important – as well as helping nature they provide valuable time outdoors and social opportunities just when we’ve all needed these most.
To find out more and get involved, visit the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative website. All images ©SISI.