Prevent harmful weeds and invasive non-native plants spreading

How to identify, control and dispose of plants that can harm livestock and the environment.

Plants that need control

You must do both of the following to control specific plants:

  • prevent invasive non-native plants on your land from spreading into the wild and causing a nuisance
  • prevent harmful weeds on your land from spreading on to a neighbour’s property

It’s important that you can identify them so you can control them in the most appropriate way.

You could be fined up to £5,000 or be sent to prison for up to 2 years if you allow contaminated soil or plant material from any waste you transfer to spread into the wild.

Prevent the spread of harmful weeds

The following weeds may be a danger to animals, or cause problems for agricultural production if left to spread unchecked:

  • common ragwort
  • spear thistle
  • creeping or field thistle
  • broad-leaved dock
  • curled dock

Find out how to identify these harmful weeds.

It’s not an offence to have these weeds growing on your land, but you must:

  • prevent them from spreading to agricultural land, particularly grazing areas or land used to produce forage, like silage and hay
  • choose the most appropriate control method for the your site, for example you may need to seek permission before you use some control methods, especially if your land is a protected site
  • not plant them in the wild

You might have to follow the rules of an enforcement notice if you allow these weeds to spread onto someone else’s property. You can also be prosecuted if you allow animals to suffer by eating these weeds.

Control common ragwort

Common ragwort is the most commonly reported weed and can seriously harm grazing livestock, including:

  • cattle
  • horses
  • ponies
  • sheep

If you’re a livestock owner you should protect animals from ragwort poisoning. Feed or forage which contains ragwort in any state is unsafe for animals.

You can control ragwort using a combination of:

  • spraying or weed wiping the plants with chemicals (known as ‘herbicides’)
  • removing live, dead or dying plants by pulling or digging them out
  • cutting plants back to prevent the dispersal of seeds
  • burning plants using a spot burner
  • managing livestock so that they do not overgraze and create bare areas where ragwort can become established

Read the guidance on spraying plants with chemicals if you’re going to control weeds with herbicides.

Dispose of ragwort

You must make sure you do not let seeds spread or put grazing animals at risk when disposing of ragwort.

If you dispose of small quantities of ragwort by letting it rot down on-site, you need to use a container with a lid to prevent dispersal (such as a rigid compost bin).

For larger quantities, you must use an on-site biomass facility (where heat and energy can be generated, for example to produce hot water for a dairy) or an incinerator that has a permit issued by the Environment Agency (EA).

If you burn or dispose of ragwort off-site, you must:

You’re breaking the law if you use a site which is not permitted to legally dispose of waste and you could be fined or go to prison.

Complain about harmful weeds

Contact the responsible landowner or occupier and ask them to prevent any weeds that are spreading on to your land and that are controlled by law.

If the landowner or occupier fails to take action, send the injurious weeds complaint form (PDF, 176KB, 4 pages) to:

Natural England Enquiries Team
Technical Services Natural England
County Hall, Spetchley Road

Telephone: 0300 060 3900


How Natural England will respond to your complaint

Natural England will only take action if weeds are threatening land used for one of the following:

  • keeping or grazing horses and other livestock
  • farmland used to produce conserved forage (such as silage and hay)
  • agriculture

Natural England will take the following steps:

  • write to the landowner to ask them to remove the weeds - the landowner will be given 2 weeks to take action during the summer months
  • write to you, to ask if they have been removed
  • decide whether enforcement action should be taken if the weeds aren’t removed (for example arrange for the Rural Payment Agency to visit the site and, if appropriate, issue an enforcement notice)

Natural England will usually respond to a valid complaint form within 24 hours. Contact Natural England to find out what they’ve done about your complaint - they’ll share information with you by copying correspondence. The landowner cannot appeal a decision by Natural England to take action about weeds.

Prevent the spread of invasive, non-native plants

You must not plant in the wild or cause certain invasive and non-native plants to grow in the wild. This can include moving contaminated soil or plant cuttings. You can be fined or sent to prison for up to 2 years.

The most commonly found invasive, non-native plants include:

  • Japanese knotweed
  • giant hogweed
  • Himalayan balsam
  • rhododendron ponticum
  • New Zealand pigmyweed (this is banned from sale)

You do not have to remove these plants or control them on your land but you could be prosecuted or given a community protection notice for causing a nuisance if you allow Japanese knotweed to grow on anyone else’s property.

Read the guidance on how to control and dispose of Japanese knotweed.

Find out how to identify invasive non-native plants.

Treat invasive non-native plants

You can get rid of invasive non-native plants by doing any of the following:

  • spray plants with chemicals
  • burn plants
  • bury plants
  • dispose of plants off-site

Spray plants with chemicals

Spraying with chemicals (known as ‘herbicides’) is an effective treatment to stop invasive plants from spreading. You must only use approved herbicides.

You’ll have to re-spray. It usually takes 15 years for giant hogweed seeds to stop germinating.

Get certificates, assessments and permission to spray plants

You may need to do any or all of the following when using chemicals:

  • make sure anyone spraying holds a certificate of competence for herbicide use or works under direct supervision of a certificate holder
  • carry out a Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) assessment
  • get permission from Natural England if the area is protected, for example sites of special scientific interest
  • get agreement from the EA if the plants are near water

Dispose of chemicals you use to spray plants

You might need any of the following to dispose of certain chemicals:

You must dispose of chemicals through a registered waste carrier to a permitted waste disposal facility.

Bury plants

Before you bury non-native invasive plant waste on your land, check with the EA to see if you can do this.

To bury non-native invasive plant waste without a permit you must meet the conditions set out in Treatment and disposal of invasive non-native plants: RPS 178. You can bury this plant waste in a landfill site if you have an environmental permit that allows this.

You may need to tell the EA a week before you intend to bury the plant waste. Send a letter to your local area EA team.

Burn plants

You must tell both of the following if you’re a farmer burning non-native invasive plant waste:

You do not need to do this if you’re burning the waste privately as an individual but you should check with your local council that burning is allowed.

You’ll also need a registered waste exemption or environmental permit if you’re a business - this includes if you’re a farmer.

Dispose off-site safely

Soil or plant material contaminated with non-native and invasive plants can cause ecological damage and may be classified as controlled waste.

It’s an offence to keep, treat or dispose of waste that could harm:

  • the environment
  • human health

You must use a registered waste carrier and an authorised landfill site or suitable disposal site. To find a site that accepts the waste you can check with the site direct, contact your local authority or check the EA public register. You cannot compost most non-native plants because of all of the following:

  • they’re usually persistent
  • they’ll survive the composting process
  • they usually infest areas where the compost is used

You must responsibly dispose of soil contaminated with persistent chemicals (such as herbicides that do not break down, which are usually hazardous waste). Find out more about disposal of:

In most cases, you’ll need to hire a specialist contractor.

Contact the Environment Agency for help

Contact the EA if you want to:

  • find out more about when you need a waste licence to dispose of waste
  • complain about waste producers who aren’t telling people they employ to transfer waste material about Japanese knotweed in that waste - this is breaking the rules on their waste duty of care


Natural England

Natural England Enquiries Team
Technical Services Natural England
County Hall, Spetchley Road


Telephone: 0300 060 3900

Environment Agency

National Customer Contact Centre
PO Box 544
S60 1BY


Telephone: 0370 850 6506

Published 23 September 2014
Last updated 30 March 2016 + show all updates
  1. Guidance revised. Japanese knotweed information moved onto separate page (but linked from this page).
  2. Removed section on 'Control invasive, non-native plants as part of a land management scheme' and RPA contact details as this is no longer part of cross compliance.
  3. Page restructure
  4. First published.