Reports in recent weeks have indicated that the spread of giant hogweed along Scotland’s riverbanks has been ‘turbo-charged’ due to a combination of unseasonably warm temperatures and high rainfall over the winter and spring months.

Giant hogweed is just one of a number of plants recognised as non-native invasive species (NNIS) in Scotland, and the UK, and so subject to specific regulatory control in order to minimise their spread, and resulting damage to the environment, the economy and public health.

In the case of giant hogweed, the toxic sap from large plants can cause significant burns and scars if it comes into contact with skin. In the summer months, the plant’s ability to spread is especially pervasive as each flower produces tens of thousands of seeds, which are then widely and readily dispersed via any adjacent watercourses.

The introduction of lockdown from the end of March due to COVID-19 has of course made dealing with the problems associated with NNIS even more difficult as the ability to carry out works has been limited, particularly as many specialist contractors qualified to treat or carry out safe removal of species have been unable to operate for a number of weeks.

With the first relaxation of lockdown beginning to permit some forms of outdoor work from the end of May, this will be welcome news to landowners and occupiers keen to proceed with treatment and management processes that may have otherwise had to be put on hold.

The regulatory regime set up under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is a complex web of restrictions and obligations requiring landowners or occupiers to take positive steps.

In essence, for land where NNIS are present:

  • You have a responsibility to prevent the plants from spreading into the wild; causing NNIS to spread into the wild is an offence.
  • When treating or controlling non-native plants on land that you own or occupy, bear in mind that the key measures for treatment, removal and disposal are all tightly regulated and require strict compliance.

Expert advice – both in terms of understanding the legal requirements and the technical solutions for treating species – is therefore highly recommended, especially if your ability to comply with the regulatory obligations and restrictions is affected by the circumstances surrounding COVID-19.

Of course, the issues surrounding NNIS become even more acute if there is to be any transaction involving land where such plants are known or suspected to be present.

Our environmental and real estate teams have specific experience of advising in situations where land is affected by giant hogweed, Japanese knotweed and other non-native invasive species.