With worrying news that one of the worlds most invasive ant species has set up home in Europe, it is critical that the Government takes proactive steps to prevent ants and other soil dwelling species reaching Great Britain.
News this week from Sicily is that the Red Imported Fire Ant (Solenopsis invicta), originally from South America, accelerates concerns about freely imported soils and potted plants to the UK. Currently the UK imports soils and plants from the European Union unchecked, under the assumption that soils contain no pests or invasive species. However, it is virtually impossible to check soils to ensure there is nothing lurking within. Many invertebrate species bury into soils and can survive long periods undisturbed. Flatworms, ants, slugs, beetles and even Asian Hornets have been found in imported soils considered ‘safe’ to transport around the globe.
Invasive ant species, such as those now found in Europe can cause destruction of crops and substantial loss to native biodiversity. The Red Imported Fire Ant can rapidly form large colonies with multiple queens. The ants prey on invertebrates, small vertebrates, and plants, destroying native plants and out-competing native species. The Red Imported Fire Ant is estimated to be fifth most costly invasive species in the world, spreading via human trade from its native South America into Mexico, the Caribbean, Australia, and the US, where it causes an estimated $6bn (£4.8bn) of damage each year.
Researchers have estimated that half of the urban areas in Europe would be climatically suitable for it, including large cities such as London, Paris, Rome, and Barcelona. With increased temperatures caused by man-made climate change, the continent will become much more suitable for the species and help its spread across Europe.
The UK Government must heed this warning and avoid the costs other nations have already borne trying to eradicate the species and must follow the routine INNS advice of prevention being better that cure.
A ban on importing soils and potted plants containing soil would virtually eliminate the horticultural hitchhiking pathway for invasive species entering the country and fall in line with most other nations. The horticultural sector already follows these rules, and it is perfectly reasonable to transport plants bare rooted between nations.
Stopping the imports of soil will also prevent other soil dwelling species such as terrestrial flatworms, slugs and snails and eliminate this route for other highly concerning species such as hibernating Asian Hornets. Taking this measure will allow greater focus to be given to surveillance and eradication as well as work on more complex pathways for the spread of invasive non-native species.
Buglife are asking the public to get behind our campaign and sign a petition asking the government to protect native species, protect agriculture and reduce costs, by banning soil imports as soon as possible.
The petition can be found at 38degrees.org.uk/petitions/stop-importing-invasive-species and will be handed over to the Secretary of State for the Environment to demonstrate the importance that must be given to biosecurity to help meet our biodiversity targets of halting species decline and increasing wildlife abundance.