A detailed report about the work to control Himalayan Balsam (HB) in the Rothay Catchment written and kindly submitted to us by Ken Taylor, HB Control co-ordinator for Rothay Catchment/SCRT Volunteer. 

My wife and I had started to tackle the all-too-obvious infestation around Rydal in 2017 but were clearly going to have to up the ante considerably if we were to make an impact. We cut our teeth on large HB infestations at Elterwater, but what we found at Rydal and White Moss left us reeling. The extent and intensity of the infestation was way beyond what we’d experienced before. In fact, we continued to find more and more over the next few years. Had we known at the outset, we may have just packed up and walked away.

Then, back in late 2018, Ruth Kirk asked me (a volunteer with South Cumbria Rivers Trust – SCRT) if there was merit in organising a HB ‘bash’. Ruth’s call offered us a life-line.

“Too late this year, but I have just the thing for next year”, I told her. Thus started a collaboration between SCRT and FLD that led to areas around White Moss and Rydal being transformed from a sea of pink alien plants to a resurgence of native species, in just 5 years. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. In that first year, 2019, we did two bashes and Ruth pushed me to estimate the number of alien plants destroyed in our Fight the Aliens Days. On the first one, we had 72 volunteers, 7 with strimmers, working all morning. My ‘heroic’ estimates put the figure for the two events somewhere near a million. Even with all those resources, we failed to reach every patch of HB. Some infestations we had yet to find. But, we had made a start – far fewer HB seeds hit the ground in 2019 than had been the case for many years before.

Covid didn’t stop us - in July 2020 multiple groups of 6 people in the open and socially distanced was well within the guidelines applicable at that time.  So, the 2020 FTAD went ahead but the end of bash gathering of tea and cakes had to be abandoned. We held FLD-SCRT joint events in 2021 and 2022, with the end of bash tea and cakes re-introduced, hosted by farmers Chris and Sharon Hodgson.

HB is not a hard plant to kill – shallow rooted, it can be pulled up easily. A quick twist to separate the roots from the stem, crunch up the rootless stem and that’s it – sorted. But, it’s impossible to spot and pull every plant; some seeds germinate late; some plants recover from even our best efforts. This is why the Fight the Aliens Day was simply the start of each season’s campaign. The big bashes were supplemented by mini-bashes at other times through the season (June to October) using a group of people who became ‘the regulars’.

Over this period, we have extended the coverage of the campaign – bringing Grasmere, Under Loughrigg and Ambleside (although the situation in Ambleside is very complex due to other watercourses (R Brathay and Stock Beck) coming together before flowing into Windermere; and the land/property ownership is much more complex).

With each successive year, the scale of the challenge has diminished but transformed from mass destruction into one of vigilance. The aim is to avoid letting any plant seed – as a annaul, its continued existence depends on producing fresh, viable seed every year. A missed plant would mean 20-30 plants there next year and yet more the year after. Long-term success for us, therefore, is measured in FEWER plants, not more. So far in 2023, we’ve pulled around 1,700 plants from 11 of the 12 patches (one patch still produces more plants than we can be bothered count, but we’re working on it). The infestation is now so much lower that a big bash a la Fight the Aliens Days would not be a worthwhile use of volunteer time. At Rydal, on the first event in July 2019, it took 90 person hours to tackle the patches there. I can now cover it on my own in 2 hours and, on my last visit, I pulled around 130 plants.

No article about HB control at White Moss and Rydal can be complete without mentioning the help and support from landowners and managers. Lowther and Rydal Estates (both major landowners hereabouts) have contributed cash or use of resources (such as strimmer time). Strimmer time has also been provided by LDNPA and the National Trust. Chris and Sharon Hodgson, who farm much of the affected land have supported us – hosting the end of season bashes, mowing fields where possible and even Chris joining in the fun and pulling plants. Rydal Mount gardeners have contributed too, and we’ve been provided with free parking at various places.  Very much a team effort. Thanks guys.

I’ve produced an annual report about our activities and these are available on the SCRT website: https://scrt.co.uk/what-we-do/habitat-improvement/invasive-non-native-species-management/himalayan-balsam-control/  The website also contains guidance on how to pull HB properly.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so take a look below. The pairs of pictures tell the story – “Then” on the left and “Now” on the right. They show us how much progress has been made. Each pair shows pictures taken from more or less the same point and at the start of the HB season, so before any pulling has taken place that year.

The take away message is – we can beat it if we try hard enough, although absence is a harder ‘sell’ than presence. Some say that “it’s too late, too well-established. We should focus our resources on other invasives.” But, apart from a small amount of officer time, use of FLD’s and SCRT’s institutional ‘platform’, aided with support in cash and kind from most affected landowners, it has been a campaign organised by volunteers for volunteers. It can be replicated. I would like to see a concept developed of a Balsam Free Zone. We are close to that now in the Rothay, upper Brathay (above Elterwater) and the Kent catchments. Plans are afoot to tackle the lower Brathay and Troutbeck (partnered by National Trust). So, some Lakeland rivers could stand out as exemplars, in stark contrast to many others around the country.

Kindly written and submitted by Ken Taylor, HB Control co-ordinator for Rothay Catchment/SCRT Volunteer.