Dikerogammarus: a species that was recently accidentally released into the wild in the UK, and which is known to have damaged freshwater ecosystems across Europe (c) Environmental Agency 

Paul Walton, RSPB Head of Habitat and Species for Scotland, writes today's blog and welcomes the creation of a UK Invasive non-native species inspectorate. 

The creation of a biosecurity team is a significant step forwards for biodiversity conservation in the UK and an important international precedent in combatting a key driver of global biodiversity loss. It is also the culmination of years of advocacy by a small group of environmental NGOs, including the RSPB, brought together as the Wildlife and Countryside LINK (WCL) Invasive Non-native Species (INNS) Group. 

On the 1st of February 2022, six new job adverts appeared on the UK Government Civil Service website. Wanted: Six new full-time Invasive Non-native Species (INNS) Inspectors. This low-key, superficially run-of-the-mill announcement signifies the establishment of a dedicated UK INNS Inspectorate.

INNS constitute one of the five principal drivers on global biodiversity loss under IPBES (UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services). International treaties and strategies on dealing with INNS – for example the UN Convention on Biodiversity and the Great Britain Non-native Species Strategy – have a strong consensus that action to combat INNS must be taken at the earliest invasion stage possible. They also stress prevention of invasion – generally termed ‘biosecurity’ – as a key priority, in terms of avoiding ecological damage, wildlife declines and minimising response costs and financial impacts. It is hundreds of times cheaper to prevent a species invasion rather than dealing with it after it has established.

How it all began

The advocacy to secure the INNS Inspectorate began in 2018, when the House of Lords EU Committee launched an Inquiry into Animal and Plant Biosecurity and Brexit. Initially, this intended to cover biosecurity for plant and animal disease only but following NGO discussions the scope was extended to include biosecurity for INNS and environmental protection too. NGO verbal and written evidence, which was adopted extensively in the final report. 

After the inquiry, Parliamentary Questions were lodged by interested MPs about relative spend on animal health, plant health and INNS biosecurity, as well as its effectiveness. These revealed that “…expenditure on biosecurity in Great Britain is approximately £220 million per year, yet invasive species only receive 0.4 per cent of that sum (£0.9m).”

The questions also revealed that the spend on animal and plant health biosecurity is effective, in that the UK often performs relatively well in these areas. It also became clear that the huge discrepancy in spend is the result of the existence of government Inspectorates for animal health and plant health – dedicated professional working to help, facilitate and ensure compliance with regulations, to focus on pathways of introduction, and promote best practice.  

No such inspectorate existed for INNS. This was a worry. Defra’s own figures estimate that 10-12 new non-native species establish in the UK every year. New trading relationships now that the UK has left the EU will mean new pathways for species to enter. Moreover, the JNCC indicator demonstrates that the species already established are spreading across terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments within the UK. With global trade expanding and climate change improving establishment conditions for species, the INNS issue is intensifying both globally and domestically. 

Advocacy for a new dedicated UK INNS Inspectorate intensified in 2019, with the producing of a WCL report - Prevention is better than Cure: a Diagnosis on the State of Invasive Species Biosecurity in the UK. A dedicated Environment Audit Committee Inquiry on Invasive Species was undertaken, reporting in October 2019. The RSPB gave evidence on behalf of WCL, with much of it reflected in the final report. Crucially, this report included a call for a new INNS Inspectorate within Defra. 

In May 2020 the Government responded to the EAC report. Defra appointed an officer to scope and develop thinking around a new inspectorate, with an initial two posts appointed. Now, following the 2021 Comprehensive Spending Review, Defra have announced the appointment of six more INNS Inspectors, bringing the total to eight, based in the Animal and Plant Health Agency of Defra. 

What next?

This is a fantastic start and means that the UK will be better protected from INNS. Thanks to the new Inspectorate, the UK can lead the way in INNS protection, and expand its own biosecurity across some of our most precious habitats. 

The next step for advocacy will be to seek expansion of capacity in the Inspectorate in line with the WCL proposal – 3 million additional spend per year and 10-20 full-time Inspectors. This will allow the Inspectorate to become not only a national INNS biosecurity body, but also a centre of expertise and best practice for wider INNS management, eradication and biosecurity within country. 

Further reading: 

For more information on Invasive Non-Native Species, visit our webpage: https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/policy-insight/species/invasive-non-native-species/.