The first thing that strikes me about the Deputy Head of Operations for the Wye and Usk Foundation, Tom Richards, is that he is much less assuming than his title. Having a demeanour that Dad would have described as ‘old school’, Tom is full of information and common sense both of which he is keen to share. In charge of the Usk catchment, he leads a team of workers undertaking practical work on the rivers known as Habitat Restoration.
“We improve access to Historical Spawning grounds of migratory species of fish,” he explains simply, “I have always worked on the rivers, and previously spent 10 years working for Keep Wales Tidy removing rubbish from the river banks as incredibly, no-one, is liable for removing rubbish on a river bank.”
“ Tidy Towns are also playing a significant role in addressing one of the biggest problems on the rivers at the moment are the non native, invasive weeds and the three terrestrials are, Japanese Knotweed, Giant Hogweed and Himalayan Balsam. We have been working on a Giant Hogweed eradication project on the Usk river for 2 years and we are beating it quietly; we have been working on Japanese Knotweed for 30 years with good results of late but the new threat is Himalayan Balsam. The plant is an annual so it comes back year after year; it produces 100’s and 100’s of seeds and which are small and hooked and easily spread by animals, vehicles, walkers and fishermen as well as being waterborne. It’s a real nuisance of a plant,” explains Tom, “as it spreads so quickly and can grows to about 2 foot tall, shading out the native species of plants and even grass at its base. It just takes over and because it’s shallow rooted and dies back every year it also leads to erosion problems on river banks. The plant itself is safe to handle and we have a terrific group of volunteers who work in teams to pull the plant up before it flowers and sets seed. April and May is the best time, which is also a great time of year to be out in the fresh air on the riverbank and we are always looking for more volunteers,” he adds cannily.
“Obviously it’s not just the Usk that’s affected, all river trusts are concerned as are the National Park, the Wildlife Trust and the National Trust. And it’s not just riverbanks that are at risk; Himalayan Balsam is spread so easily that it is already taking over hillsides, woods and even gardens. The big problem is that it just crowds out everything else; it kills all the native and even domestic plants. Unlike Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogweed, Himalayan Balsam is a pretty plant and people are fooled into thinking it’s harmless. It also has high yields of nectar, up to 5 times the amount of other plants and we have unfortunately heard rumours of commercial beekeepers spreading the seeds deliberately to grow plants for their bees. The long term problem here is that our native species aren’t being pollinated then,” he explains patiently. “We need to take responsibility for our environment that means thinking about and taking action for the long term.”
If you are interested in volunteering to join Tom and his teams on the riverbank, call Tom on 07920 422008. He is fascinating to talk to and will be able to advice you how you can help in your area. He is also happy to answer your questions about these and other non native invasive plants you may be concerned about. www.wyeuskfoundation.org also has further relevant information or pop into www.nonnativespecies.org for down loadable photographs to aid identification.