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A local initiative to control invasive plant species along the River Suir Blueway attracts International volunteers.
An exciting community led initiative kicked off this summer to control and eradicate non-native invasive plants that are currently spreading along the River Suir corridor. This is a significant pilot project to tackle the spread of Himalayan balsam, one of the most invasive species occurring in Ireland. The plant has been spreading aggressively throughout the Suir Valley, especially along the Suir Blueway from Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir. Results so far from this initiative look promising.
This summer Clonmel was delighted to welcome students from Germany who come here for work placements through Experiment in International Living (EIL). EIL is an inter cultural learning organisation which supports collaboration, learning and diversity between countries and the students volunteered to get involved in this initiative on the Suir. The Waters and Communities Team from the Local Authority Waters Programme provided technical backup and support and Tipperary County Council provided the necessary equipment. Members of the local Suircan, which is an environmental NGO with an interest in the sustainable use of the River Suir, also volunteered along with other locally based interested people.
Dr. Fran Igoe, Regional Coordinator with the Waters and Communities Office welcomed the volunteers at the Local Authority Waters Programme offices at Ballingarrane, Clonmel where he gave an introductory lecture about the River Suir, the problems of invasive species, and the technique to be used in eradicating Himalayan balsam. This was followed by a risk assessment and training for volunteers on keeping safe along rivers and an introduction to the safety equipment. The group then moved to the river bank at Moangarriff for a demonstration of the correct technique to remove the invasive plant. An ‘ice breaker’ game on the correct use of water safety throw bags followed, these throw bags were carried by the volunteers carried as a precaution in the unlikely event of any impromptu swimmers! Thankfully they were not needed.
The overall plan was simple, to map the distribution of the invasive plants along the Suir and then get stuck in and physically remove them. Himalayan balsam is currently threatening habitats all over Ireland and is advancing along the Suir Valley, threatening the natural quality of the Blueway. Unlike other invasive species, Himalayan balsam is easy and safe to remove and can be done by just pulling up the plant. The concern is not to get stung by nettles or pricked by briars in the process, and of course not to fall into the water.
The German students, aged 15 to 21, were no slouches and took to the work with great enthusiasm, along with the local volunteers, both young and old(er), all combining to produce a small army of conservation volunteers. Dr Fran Igoe of the Waters and Communities Office provided the benefit of his technical experience developed on other large scale invasive species projects in Ireland. With the assistance of the EIL coordinators, local community worker Andy Griffin, Alan Moore of Suircan and Shay Hurley of the Workman’s Boat Club, the volunteers were well trained and worked to a site-specific conservation and health and safety plan. Mapping of the plant was carried out using the most sustainable means of transport available –a bicycle, which was perfect to travel along the beautiful Suir Blueway.
Himalayan balsam, also known as the ‘poorman’s orchid’ is an attractive plant with a pretty pink or white flower. Unfortunately, it is also one of our most destructive invasive species and since its introduction in Victorian times to Western European gardens from India and Pakistan, it has colonised this island with increasing success. In fact, it is listed by Invasive Species Ireland as one of the most invasive species here and it is also on the EU’s “List of Invasive Species of Union Concern”. Himalayan balsam produces up to 2,000 seeds per plant which it ejects with explosive force from its green seed pods, to a distance of up to 7 metres from the parent plant. Being an annual plant, it dies back in the winter leaving exposed soil which in turn leads to river bank erosion and consequent mud silting of river beds where fish are prevented from spawning. It also out-competes our native plants for nectar loving pollinating insects, and because bees love it, they pollinate balsam in favour of the natives thus further reducing the biodiversity of native plants along the river.
There is good news however! The plant is easy to pull up being shallow rooted and without thorns or other nasty surprises (for example giant hogweed, another invader has toxic sap which causes burns). The Balsam plants can be pulled up in the early summer quite successfully and left to rot. The other good news is that Himalayan balsam has not yet had a chance to dominate the Suir Valley which is why this volunteer led initiative is very timely.
Over the summer, the plant was removed from a from an extensive area between Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir, this action can only benefit the quality of the Suir Blueway and reduce the risk of river bank erosion and cyclists and walkers unknowingly transferring Himalayan balsam to other areas. This is very important as the seeds of the plant can easily attach to clothes, footwear and even dogs. So the sooner it is under control along the Suir the better.
Signage was erected during the project alerting people using the Blueway and asking cyclists to slow down for safety reasons. There was considerable curiosity and interest in what was going on and great discussions were had with people who were walking along the Blueway about the invasive species problem on the Suir and the wonderful wildlife that needs our care. Volunteers also collected litter they came across and we would encourage people to report any dumping in the area on the ‘See it, Say it’ confidential phone line 1850 365 121 or mobile phone App.
We were really blessed with beautiful weather this summer and the river looked its very best, making the rather repetitive work more bearable and allowing a full appreciation of the wildlife the Suir supports. The work was easy going and relaxing and the volunteers were able to stop and admire kingfishers, mallard duck with chicks, numerous herons, swans, cormorants and even an egret, along with fabulous displays of purple loosestrife, willow herb and other native plants. Group activities also included a surprise visit to Poulakerry Castle near Kilsheelan where the volunteers were generously hosted by the owner Liz Walsh for tea, sandwiches and a tour.
Alan Moore, Suircan and Andy Griffin (EIL local coordinator)
Himalayan balsam along the Suir is still relatively manageable and with follow-up pulling programmes planned for the years ahead this initiative could be effective in eradicating this invasive plant from the River Suir, which can only bring benefit for all of us. If you would like to get involved in this initiative next summer as an individual or as a group please contact the Local Authority Water Programme to be kept informed by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org