EU herbicide ban threatens Scotland’s purple heathered mountains

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by a Newsnet reporter

Scottish conservationists and farmers have reacted with anger after the use of the herbicide Asulam (trade name Asulox) was banned from being used on vegetation.

The ban was introduced by the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, which is a committee of scientific representatives from all EU Member States, including the UK.

by a Newsnet reporter

Scottish conservationists and farmers have reacted with anger after the use of the herbicide Asulam (trade name Asulox) was banned from being used on vegetation.

The ban was introduced by the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, which is a committee of scientific representatives from all EU Member States, including the UK.

Asulox is the only herbicide that kills bracken fern, the vegetation has an expansive and pervasive root systems that would blanket much of Scotland if left uncontrolled.  Critics of the ban have said the Asulox ruling could destroy the Scottish uplands.

Asulox is usually sprayed from helicopters over wide areas.  Simon Thorp, of The Heather Trust, said: “Without Asulox we are going to see a huge expansion of bracken, especially on lower slopes of hills.  Bracken is going to replace heather.  We like to think of the colour of Scottish hills as the purple of heather. Well, that will now change.  What people don’t seem to realise is that much of Scotland would be naturally covered with bracken, by a plant so successful it was around when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth.”

A massive expansion of bracken would have devastating effects on the Scottish economy.  Popular Scottish outdoor activities like hillwalking, deer-stalking and shooting will all be badly affected.  Moreover, very serious health concerns are being raised following the announcement of the ban – bracken is rife with sheep ticks, which can cause Lyme disease.

NFU Scotland president Nigel Miller said: “The lack of alternative products – particularly those suitable for aerial spraying – means more of Scotland’s hills and uplands run the risk of disappearing under a carpet of impenetrable bracken.”

The committee backed the ban because Asulox is judged unsafe as a herbicide on spinach crops, clearly not a major concern in Scotland.  It is however, believed to be completely safe for use on bracken which is not eaten and is itself believed to be carcinogenic when it turns brown.

SNP MEP Alyn Smith has been warning since April that the chemical could be banned and said the decision came as “no surprise”.  He has already contacted India-based United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) to ask them to clarify their paperwork and make clear the chemical is for bracken, not spinach.  He still believes something can be done to resolve the situation.

Mr Smith said: “This issue has been frustrating from the start, and I am even more frustrated that I have to repeat the advice I gave the company by letter back in early April.  Advice they not only did not take but did not even see fit to respond to.”

Rural Affairs Secretary MSP Richard Lochhead: “Farmers will still be able to buy asulam up to December 31, 2011, and store it for use up to December 31, 2012. From January 2013, applications for an emergency authorisation for the use of asulam can be made to the Chemicals Regulation Directorate until a longer term solution is found.”

Newsnet Scotland has been contacted by a representative of the European Parliament who pointed out an inaccuracy in our article where we stated the ban had been introduced by the European Parliament.  We have been informed that the European Parliament has nothing to do with the decision to ban asulam.  The verdict comes from the “Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health”, which is a committee of scientific representatives from all EU Member States, including the UK.  This committee is chaired by (and feeds into decisions taken by) the European Commission.  The article has been amended accordingly.