LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Britain has approved the introduction of a foreign lice to tackle the spread of Japanese knotweed in the first such use of a non-native insect to control a plant species, the Environment Department said on Tuesday. The government gave the go-ahead for the release of the Aphalara itadori psyllid after having launched a public consultation last July on whether to grant a license to introduce the insect which naturally controls the invasive weed in its homeland in Japan.
The knotweed, which can grow at a rate of up to one meter (three feet) a month, damages the environment by stopping other plants from growing and has a devastating effect on native species.
The plant, which is also capable of pushing through tarmac and concrete, damaging roads and buildings and costing millions of pounds to remove each year, is listed by the World Conservation Union as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species.
It was introduced in Britain by botanists in 19th century as an ornamental plant.
“Japanese knotweed causes over 150 million pounds worth of damage and disruption throughout the UK every year,” Wildlife Minister Huw Irranca-Davies said in a statement.
“These tiny insects, which naturally prey on Japanese knotweed, will help free local authorities and industry from the huge cost of treating and killing this devastating plant,” he added.
Britain will be the first in Europe to use an insect to act as a natural form of pest control.
But other attempts at biocontrol have had devastating environmental impacts, notably the decision to introduce cane toads to Australia to control beetles.
Just over 100 were brought from Hawaii but now there are more than 200 million.
CABI, a not-for-profit research body, has spent five years investigating the best way to combat Japanese knotweed with the least impact on the environment.
The lice has been tested in Britain on over 90 types of plants. If the coming first phase is successful, the insect will be released at more sites where it will continue to be monitored.
“This is a great opportunity for the UK to benefit from a technique commonly used outside Europe,” said Dr Dick Shaw, CABI’s lead researcher on the project said on the Environment Department website.
“We have every reason to believe that this knotweed specialist can help limit the impacts of this harmful invasive weed safely and sustainably,” he added.
Editing by Paul Casciato