Shropshire Star

Can Brexit stop foreign pests hurting our environment

Brexit could boost the environment and save millions of pounds which is spent on repairing ecological damage, says a Shropshire MP.

Owen Paterson (right) – 'freedom from EU red tape will help conservation'

Owen Paterson, a former environment secretary, said retaking control of our borders could help prevent invasive species from causing damage to the ecology of the UK.

He told an audience in Washington how tougher border controls could stop species such as exotic grasshoppers, moths, spiders and beetles from damaging ecosystems in the UK.

The North Shropshire MP added that breaking free from EU red tape would enable British farmers to increase efficiency by adopting new technologies, as well as helping to protect endangered species.

"We will use taking back control of our borders to better protect our native fauna and flora," Mr Paterson told the right-leaning Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Mr Paterson said damage from invasive species costs the UK an estimated £1.82 billion each year.

"The red squirrel and the white-clawed crayfish face local and perhaps national extinction in Britain as a result of diseases spread by the signal crayfish and the alien grey squirrel, mistakenly introduced from America in the 19th century," he said.

"The intransigence of the EU has meant that, while studies have been completed, effective action has been woefully slow, and the threat to these native species continues to grow."

He added that the Brazilian Obama Flatworm, which was a predator of land snails and earthworms, was already threatening agriculture in France, and was spreading across Europe.

"There are 18 further invasive flatworm species already in Europe, and the uncontrolled trade in pot plants is rapidly expanding their reach," he said, adding that another species of flatworm currently in France had been billed as one of the "100 worst invasive alien species in the world” by the conservation charity Buglife.

"Such groups frequently report the arrival of exotic grasshoppers, wasps, beetles, moths and spiders at garden centres and nurseries, many with the potential to cause dramatic damage to native wildlife and agriculture, only to be met with inaction," said Mr Paterson.

"Increases in global trading have increased the risks of plant disease, and the insistence of the EU on free movement has increased the rate of ash dieback, and put some 80 million ash trees in the UK at risk."

Mr Paterson said that Britain's advantage of being an island gave it an enormous advantage in protecting the landscape from invasive species, and that the use of technology would allow the UK to develop a rigours system that would predict, monitor and control the spread of pests and diseases.

He said Britain's success in tackling invasive species in its overseas territory of South Georgia, in the south Atlantic, was an example of what could be done if nation states were left to devise their own controls.

"Rats, reindeer and various alien plant species have been eliminated, ushering in renewed growth in the numbers of fur seals, elephant seals, king penguins and other indigenous species.

"We can implement a quarantine system with the kind of rigour found in Australia and New Zealand and ensure that the UK becomes a haven for animals, birds, plants and trees for generations to come."

Mr Paterson added that Brexit would also end the practice of fishermen throwing dead fish back into the sea in order to avoid breaching EU quotas.

Under the present system, fishermen are restricted in the number of fish they are allowed to bring ashore, leading to the smaller fish being thrown back into the sea, even though they are usually dead by the time they have been sorted.

Previous reports have claimed that as many as 90 per cent of the fish caught in waters off Scotland and Ireland are thrown back into the water, accounting for waste of 866,000 tons in the North Sea alone.

"It is a system that has forced fishermen to throw back more fish dead into the sea then they have landed," said Mr Paterson.

"It has caused substantial degradation to the marine environment, it has destroyed much of the fishing industry."

He said attempts by the EU to stop fishermen from throwing their catches away had been ineffective. Mr Paterson called for the quota system should be replaced with one that instead restricted the number of days that fishermen could spend at sea, requiring them to keep and record every fish that they caught.

Mr Paterson said Europe lagged behind both North America and the Far East when it came to agricultural technology, considering only the hazards of innovation, without balancing these against the benefits. He said the EU ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, ostensibly to stem a decline in the honeybee population, typified this stance.

"This might seem a reasonable response, but for the fact that the honeybee population has not been in decline," he said. "Honeybee numbers are higher today than they were two decades ago when neonics were first introduced."

Mr Paterson also called for a more open-minded approach to genetically modified crops, saying that in many cases they represented little more than the continuation of husbandry techniques which had been going on for thousands of years.

Contrasting Europe's approach to GM crops with that of the US, Mr Paterson said France was missing out on 1.6 million tons per acre in corn yields. He said if France had kept up with US technology, its crop would generate an extra £600 million for the French economy, or alternatively free up 1.2 million acres of land for conservation purposes.