Rust Fungus opening the doors for biological control in the future

Himalayan Balsam
Himalayan Balsam

Pioneering research carried out by CABI scientists in collaboration with Royal Holloway and the University of Reading is looking to enhance the effectiveness of the biological control of invasive species. The team is using rust fungus (Puccinia komarovii var. glanduliferae) to control the invasive species, Himalayan balsam (impatients gladulifera), and developing ways in which this approach could be replicated for other invasive plant species.

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The impacts of invasive weeds in Chitwan National Park, Nepal

Mikania (Mikania micrantha) is a tropical vine which is native to the Americas. Often referred to as the ‘Mile-a-Minute Weed,’ mikania grows rapidly in areas of high rainfall and has become highly invasive in parts of Asia and the Pacific. Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, invasive species are defined as alien species that threaten native ecosystems, habitats or species and in Nepal, mikania and other invasive plants such as chromolaena (Chromolaena odorata) are becoming increasingly problematic within the Chitwan National Park (CNP). There, the plants are having a serious negative impact on native grasses, shrubs and the one-horned rhinoceros, and by implication, deer and tiger populations. They are also affecting the local people who reside in the buffer zones and rely on the park for fodder and other materials.

A rhino amongst chromolaena
A rhino amongst chromolaena

Rhinos

In a specific study on mikania, scientists from the National Trust for Nature Conservation, Nepal with support from CABI and the Zoological Society of London have found a significant negative relationship between high mikania coverage and the population of rhinos. This is because the mikania vine smothers the fodder plants that the rhinos feed on. This could also be influencing their movement to other areas of the park where they feed on resources and crops important to local people. This in turn may exacerbate conflict between the residents of the buffer zones and the wildlife in the area.

Deer and Tigers

The reduction in fodder plants is likely also to cause a mirrored decrease in the number of deer in the park. Deer feed on similar plants to the rhinos and the impact of mikania on native vegetation is therefore likely to affect their feeding behaviour in a comparable manner. As a result a decrease in deer numbers is likely to have a negative impact on tiger populations, with tiger numbers being directly related to the populations of their prey.

Local people

The residents of the buffer zones surrounding the CNP are known to rely on the core area of the park for resources such as fodder, which they use to feed their livestock. These residents recognise that fodder availability within the park has decreased and report that collecting materials now takes three times as long as it has in previous years to gather the same amount of fodder. Reduced fodder has been attributed to flooding of the park and the spread of invasive plant species. In particular, a high proportion of local residents report that mikania has a significant negative impact on the fodder growing in the park.

Sustainable control of mikania weed

CABI piloted using a rust fungus (Puccinia spegazzinii) as a classical biological control agent for mikania weed in India. This highly host specific and damaging pathogen has now been released in Papua New Guinea and Taiwan, where it is having a significant impact on the growth of the weed. The rust has recently been released on a number of other Pacific Islands, and could be considered for release in Nepal.

Tackling Tutsan

Tutsan (Hypericum androsaemum) is invasive to New Zealand and Australia. Native to many countries throughout Europe and western parts of Asia, it is thought to have been introduced as a garden ornamental by acclimatisation societies in the 1800s due to its attractive yellow flower. Today, tutsan is a severe weed in several regions of New Zealand, most significantly affecting the Ruapehu District and Bay of Plenty region in the North Island. Over the last 20 years, tutsan has become an increasing problem in these regions; spreading throughout low fertility pastures and along roadsides. There is concern that tutsan has the potential to pose a significant conservation threat if it continues to spread at its current rate through scrub and native forest fringes.

Flowering tutsan plants growing in New Zealand (photo: Lizzie Rendell, 2011)
Flowering tutsan plants growing in New Zealand (photo: Lizzie Rendell, 2011)

Recent estimates indicate that around 150,000 ha of land in the Ruapehu district is affected by tutsan. Within the district, the annual cost of controlling the weed, and loss of farming profit amount to around $NZ1.2 million (£600,000), and loss of current land values is estimated at $NZ27 million (£13 million). Tutsan is a persistent weed for which there are no registered chemicals. Off-label herbicides are currently used in an attempt to limit its spread, but these are proving ineffective with stands typically reappearing several years later. The weed is unpalatable to stock and the topography of the region’s worst affected areas further limits the control methods possible. Continue reading

CABI releases rust fungus to control invasive weed, Himalayan balsam

26 August 2014 – From today, not-for-profit research organization, CABI, will be releasing a rust fungus at locations in Berkshire, Cornwall and Middlesex as part of field trials to control the non-native, invasive weed Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) using natural means.

Himalayan balsam has rapidly become one of the UK’s most widespread invasive weeds, colonizing river banks, waste land, damp woodlands, roadways and railways. The Environment Agency estimates that the weed occupies over 13% of river banks in England and Wales. It can reach over three metres in height and competes with native plants, reducing biodiversity. Large scale chemical and manual control is often not feasible and not economically viable.

Himalayan balsam infestation on the river Torridge, Devon, UK
Himalayan balsam infestation on the river Torridge, Devon, UK (Rob Tanner, CABI)

Using existing measures, the Environment Agency estimates it would cost up to £300 million to eradicate Himalayan balsam from the UK.

The release of the rust fungus comes after an eight-year research programme funded primarily by Defra and the Environment Agency, with contributions from Network Rail, the Scottish Government and Westcountry Rivers Trust. During the course of the research, testing in quarantine laboratories has established that the rust fungus causes significant damage to Himalayan balsam and does not impact on native species.

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