A cloudy day, but dry and hot.
I can’t deny that a description like this is a pretty cliched opening, but that was the mental note I made on arrival at Montrose Basin today. A 5-minute scan of the basin, unarguably my favourite nature reserve, showed nesting common terns, eider on the water and basking common seals. Today’s destination, however, was at the stream that ran into it, underneath a canopy of hawthorne and sycamore.
Like secret agents, our team, having swept the area, fanned out. We had access to the latest gadgets of the Scottish Wildlife Trust: fluorescent orange gloves. We had been given our orders. And our mission, should we choose to accept it: neutralise Himalayan balsam.
Himalayan Balsam is a native of… well, can you guess where? It was brought to Britain in 1839, on the same boat as two other notorious plants, Giant Hogweed and Japanese Knotweed. Ironically, the almost superhuman ‘divide and conquer’ abilities of all these plants was why they were brought over in the first place: they were quick-growing, fast-spreading plants, and was meant to appeal to low-income plant enthusiasts, who would now be able to grow gardens rivalling the aristocracy. The rest is history.
Balsam has rapidly established itself along basin, spreading its seeds via pods packed so densely with liquid, that the slightest contact causes them to explode and fling their seeds yonder. Hence we were cutting them down while they were still in flower, before their seed pods develop, to nip their spread in the bud.
Actually, to stop the balsam, we had to take them out a bit lower than the bud. The shoot of a Himalayan Balsam grows in an L-shape; it grows diagonally, before shooting upwards. A nick-point develops where the shoot begins to develop vertically, so the plant needs to be uprooted below that to be stopped. Actually, seeing that knick point, and how easily the plant comes out when pulled below it, is enough to put doubts in your mind about evolution; it almost seems like the balsam was designed to be uprooted by people.
Once uprooted, the balsam are stacked up around the woods, and the numerous groups that come to do the exact same as us tread over them on the way. This helps kick-start the decomposition of the balsam shoots, so recycling their nutrients to the soil.
Job’s a good ‘un, as they say. Being on my way to Montserrat tomorrow, it was good to get out into the field and do a bit of practical conservation.