How farmers and landowners can identify injurious or invasive wild plants and weeds, which are protected, and what you should do about them.
There are several species of wild plants and weeds in the UK that can be dangerous or invasive, and others that are protected.
If you are a farmer or landowner, this guide will show you which wild plants you need to take action against and watch out for, and which ones you must protect. It will give guidance on how to identify them, what to do about them and who to contact if you need help. It will also show how wild plants are affected by good agricultural and environmental conditions and Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs), as part of Cross Compliance, and how better land management practices can help prevent weed infestations.
Wild plants and Cross Compliance
To qualify for full payment under the Single Payment Scheme (SPS) and other direct payments - eg the Environmental Stewardship schemes - you must meet all relevant Cross Compliance requirements. These requirements are split into two types:
- Statutory Management Requirements
- requirements to keep your land in Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAECs)
SMR 5 - protecting species of flora and fauna
SMR 5 bans the deliberate picking, collecting, cutting, uprooting or destruction of a wild plant of a ‘European protected species’. In addition, if any of your land is designated as a Special Area of Conservation, you will have to apply to Natural England in writing for a licence or consent before carrying out a specified operation. You can find more information about SMR 5 on the Rural Payments Agency (RPA).
SMR 9 - restrictions on the use of plant protection products (PPPs)
If you use PPPs, then under SMR 9 you must ensure that they have been approved under relevant legislation and are used correctly, to minimise risk to humans, animals and the environment. You can find the SMR 9 restrictions on the use of PPPs on the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) website.
Alternatively, you can get a free copy on CD, or a printed copy for a charge of £15, by calling the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Publications Infoline on Tel 08459 55 6000 or by writing to them at the following address:
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Publications
SW1A 2XX You should quote product code PB11090 for the printed copy or PB11090CD for the CD version.
You can also read about the approval of agricultural, horticultural and home garden pesticides on the HSE website.
Farm environments and wild plants
Conserving landscape and wildlife is important for the UK and its farmers, which is why certain farm support payments have been redirected into supporting environmental stewardship activities.
Wild plants are an integral part of many farm environments, and they need to be managed properly. They are subject to good agricultural and environmental conditions and Statutory Management Requirements, as part of Cross Compliance.
Even harmful, injurious species such as ragwort can have significant conservation benefits.
Certain plants are specially protected by both European Union and UK law. Plants in the UK are protected under two key pieces of legislation, which contain sanctions and penalties for non-compliance. They are:
- the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) where specially protected species are listed under Schedule 8
- the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 where protected species are listed under Schedule 4
Under both pieces of legislation, it is an offence to intentionally pick, uproot or destroy certain wild plants, or to possess, sell or exchange them.
Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
Certain wild plants are protected against uprooting, cutting, picking, destroying or selling: these plants are listed in Schedule 8 of the Act. The Schedule is reviewed every five years. Currently 183 plants and fungi are listed in the Schedule, including:
- 105 flowering plants
- five ferns
- one horsetail
- 37 bryophytes - including 26 mosses and 9 liverworts
- two charophytes (stoneworts)
- 30 lichens
- five fungi
All wild plants cannot be uprooted under section 13 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, unless this is carried out by the owner or occupier of the land on which the plant is growing, or by someone having their permission to do so, or unless the action is authorised in writing by the appropriate local authority.
Dealing with injurious weeds and invasive plants
The control and reporting of injurious weeds and invasive plants are subject to legislation.
There are five weeds classified as injurious under the Weeds Act 1959:
- Common ragwort (Senecio jacobae) - the most dangerous injurious weed, and the most commonly reported.
- Spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare) - occurs widely on lowland and upland, grassland and waste places. This produces large numbers of seeds which can be blown across farm and field boundaries. It can be cut each year before mid-July to prevent shedding of viable seed. It is also possible to remove by digging, and long-term control is possible using herbicide treatment.
- Creeping or field thistle (Cirsium arvense) - can quickly dominate vegetation in grassland or waste ground, often by spread of underground root systems. A range of herbicides can control it on arable land, depending on field crop grown. Repeated cutting at the same growth stage over several years may ‘wear down’ an infestation. Cultivation is not effective as it increases the number of root pieces which can throw up new shoots.
- Broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius) - thrives in high-nitrogen environments, open swards and where there is heavy treading by stock.
- Curled dock (Rumex crispus) - occurs more commonly on arable and waste land.
Both dock species produce many seeds which can remain viable in soil for decades. They look similar but their leaf shapes differ, as reflected in their names. Hybrids are also common, which can hinder identification. Both species flower from late June until early autumn.
Controlling injurious weeds
It is not an offence to have these injurious weeds growing on your land. In fact, they all have significant conservation benefits. However, you are responsible for controlling them. You must not allow them to spread to agricultural land, particularly grazing areas or land used to produce conserved forage.
You must also choose the most appropriate control method for the specific circumstances of your site, particularly if it is of special conservational interest and there could be a risk of damaging rare or valuable flora and fauna. In such a situation, you should seek expert advice.
By adopting good land-management practices, you can help to reduce or even prevent infestations in the first place - a far preferable approach to having to control and dispose of them once an infestation has taken hold.
If you fail to prevent the spread of these weeds to agricultural land, you can have an enforcement notice served on you.
Download a guidance note on the methods that can be used to control harmful weeds.
See a guide to the identification of injurious weeds.
There are many, mainly non-native, plants not covered by the Weeds Act 1959 which are still considered to be invasive. The following are perhaps the most widespread:
- Japanese knotweed
- Giant hogweed
- Himalayan balsam (a particular problem for river bank erosion)
- New Zealand Pigmyweed
It is not an offence to have these plants growing on your land or in your garden, and there is no legal requirement to control them. However, it is an offence to cause those listed in Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to grow in the wild.
Ban on sale of invasive plants
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (prohibition on Sale etc. of Invasive Non-native Plants) (England) Order 2014 prohibits a number of plants from sale in England due to their significant negative impacts on biodiversity and the economy. Those species prohibited from sale are (alternative names are given in brackets):
- Fern, Water , Azolla filiculoides, (Fairy Fern)
- Parrot’s Feather, Myriophyllum aquaticum, (Brazilian Watermilfoil, Myriophyllum brasiliense, Myriophyllum Proserpinacoides, Enydria aquatica)
- Pennywort, Floating, Hydrocotyle ranunculoides
- Primrose, Floating Water, Ludwigia peploides
- Primrose, Water, Ludwigia grandiflora
- Primrose, Water, Ludwigia uruguayensis
- Stonecrop, Australian Swamp, Crassula helmsii, (New Zealand Pigmyweed, Tillaea aquatica, Tillaea recurva)
As with injurious weeds, prevention is far easier and less costly (both financially and environmentally) than control - for example, when planting cover or amenity areas, you should take care to include only benign species, avoiding those with invasive tendencies such as snowberry or rhododendron.
Further information on injurious weeds and invasive plants on the Natural England website.
Common ragwort is a plant that is toxic to livestock and horses and occurs in neglected, periodically poached or overgrazed grass fields, on uncropped ground and sand dunes. It accounts for over 90% of complaints about injurious weeds. It is the only one of the five weeds specified in the Weeds Act 1959 that poses a serious risk to animal health, especially horses, ponies, cattle and sheep as it can cause cumulative liver damage and can even be fatal if ingested in its green or dried state.
All parts of the ragwort plant remain toxic and harmful to animals when treated or wilted. Cut and pulled flowering ragwort plants may still set seed and ragwort has a 70% seed germination rate. See the code of practice on preventing the spread of ragwort and guidance on its disposal.
How to assess the risks posed by ragwort
There are three categories for assessing risk:
- high risk - where ragwort is flowering or seeding within 50 metres of land used for grazing by horses and other animals or for feed/forage production
- medium risk - where ragwort is present within 50 to 100 metres of land used for grazing by horses and other animals or for feed/forage production
- low risk - where ragwort or the land on which it is present is more than 100 metres from land used for grazing by horses and other animals, or for feed/forage production
These distances are only guidelines. You should also consider particular local circumstances and other relevant factors, such as prevailing winds, topography, shelter belts, natural barriers, soil type and vegetation cover of receiving land. It is not the density of ragwort that determines the level of risk, but the likelihood of it spreading to grazing and/or feed/forage production land.
How to control and dispose of common ragwort
Good husbandry, particularly for uncropped ground and grassland, is the key to controlling ragwort. Almost all infestations of ragwort are due to poor husbandry - especially excessive poaching and overgrazing.
For example, you should:
- ensure you keep managed grassland in a good condition, taking care to avoid excessive poaching or overgrazing
- conduct a six-monthly review of the risk of spread to land used for grazing or conserved forage production
- avoid removing ground cover in amenity areas, roadside verges and on railway land unless provisions are made for the appearance of ragwort
- pay particular attention to areas of bare/disturbed land
You should not:
- bury ragwort in manure heaps
- use ragwort as animal bedding
- dig, bury or plough ragwort into the ground
- attempt to dry ragwort where animals may gain access to it
- allow the liquid from decomposing ragwort to drain directly to any ditch, drain or watercourse
- attempt to burn wet ragwort, or use other flammable materials that may directly cause dark smoke, eg rubber or plastics
- allow seed dispersal from plant residues that are awaiting disposal
- transport ragwort unnecessarily
- transport ragwort unless it is in sealed bags or containers
You can spot-treat the plant rosettes with selective herbicides, usually in late spring and in the autumn before frost damages the foliage to control the growth of ragwort. The most effective material for overall spraying is ‘2,4-D’ but this will damage clover and a number of other plant species. Products containing citronella oil are now available for spot treatment of ragwort. No single herbicide treatment will completely eliminate ragwort infestation due to successive germinations of the seeds.
Disposing of ragwort safely and effectively reduces the risk of further spread by seed dispersal and re-growth from root sections. Early and effective control of ragwort will minimise the problems of disposal. You should take suitable precautions when handling both live and dead plants and when transporting ragwort.
You can download guidance on the disposal options for common ragwort.
Specially protected plants
Wild plants listed in Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) receive special protection.
It is an offence to intentionally pick, uproot or destroy such a plant or to possess, sell or exchange them. Even non-vascular plants - which have no roots - are protected against removal from the substrate on which they are growing.
The Schedule is reviewed every five years. It currently includes vascular plants (including flowering plants, ferns and horsetails), bryophytes (including mosses and liverworts), charophytes (stoneworts), lichens and fungi.
European protected species
The following wild plants are all specifically protected by European Directive:
- Creeping Marshwort
- Early Gentian
- Fen Orchid
- Floating leaved water Plantain
- Killarney Fern
- Lady’s Slipper
- Shore Dock
- Slender Naiad
- Yellow Marsh Saxifrage
Licences for protected wild plant species
Certain wild species are specially protected under law, which makes it an offence to deliberately pick, collect, cut, uproot or destroy them, or to possess, sell or exchange them.
However, the legislation allows you to carry out prohibited actions under a licence in certain circumstances, if the issue cannot be resolved in any other way.
Natural England administers licence applications for purposes such as:
- studying or conserving wild plants or introducing wild plants into particular areas
- preventing serious damage to livestock, food for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, or fisheries, or any other form of property
- preventing the spread of disease
- preserving public health or public safety
Where the licence application relates to a European species of wild plant under Section 42 and schedule 4 of the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010, ‘imperative reasons of overriding public interest’ may also be considered as the basis for issuing a licence. However, in these cases, Natural England must be satisfied that:
- there is no satisfactory alternative to issuing a licence for the activity
- the action authorised will not affect the population of the species concerned
How to apply for a licence
You will need to complete a form for the particular type of licence you require. You can find a licence application form for dealing with protected plants on the Natural England website.
Following receipt of your completed application, a Wildlife Management Adviser may contact you to discuss the case or arrange a visit to the site where the problem is occurring. The advisor will assess the situation and advise on any remedial options available. There is no charge for this licence or for advice.
Chemicals Regulation Directorate Helpline
01904 455 775
Natural England Enquiry Service
0845 600 3078
Defra Wildlife Species Conservation Division
0117 372 6154
08459 33 55 77
0845 603 7777
Cross Compliance Helpline
0845 345 1302