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Lyme Disease: Calls for Scottish Government to urgently approve vital bracken control measures

By David Porter

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Lyme Disease - ticks are a source of the infection
Lyme Disease - ticks are a source of the infection

Hill farmer Brian Walker, an NFU Scotland member from Inveraray in Argyll is calling on the Scottish Government to urgently provide the emergency authorisation for the bracken control herbicide Asulam for the benefit of upland farming and crofting across Scotland.

Mr Walker, a tenant farmer at Carloonan Farm, looks after 2500 acres of hill ground with 80 suckler cows and 950 breeding ewes.

He said if Scottish Government failed to provide authorisation, it would be “a dereliction of duty to protect farmers, crofters, the rural workforce, and public health.”

Mr Walker added: “The Scottish Government Minister Lorna Slater is dragging her heels because Asulam is a herbicide.

"But the truth is that the negative impacts of not controlling bracken far outweigh those of using Asulam to control it.

"In fact, by not spraying bracken to prevent it growing, it will actually lead to more chemicals being used.

"This is because bracken is the perfect harbour for ticks.

“I have never before seen more cows coming off the hill this spring covered in ticks.

"The warm temperatures in the dead bracken over the winter months makes it the perfect place for them to survive and breed over winter.

“This is having a devastating impact on our animals.

"Once an animal becomes a host for ticks, we have to use a chemical – like spot-on treatments used on cats and dogs – to get rid of them.

"If we don’t do this, it could lead to the animals getting seriously ill.

"Redwater disease in cattle and louping ill in sheep are nasty diseases.

"So, it is ironic that to protect our animals, we would have to use chemicals on them, rather than control the problem at the source by removing bracken.

“Not controlling bracken can also have a serious detrimental impact to the general public.

Bracken is carcinogenic and there have been increased reports of its spores entering watercourses.

"This is a threat to the public.

“In Inveraray, tourists used to wander round the town and the castle, but now, we have more people coming up to the estate and going into wilder hill ground where they are coming into contact with bracken.

"This could also have a major impact on human health.

"There has already been a reported increase in Lyme disease this year as well as confirmed cases of tick-borne encephalitis in the UK – a virus which can cause swelling of the brain.

“Reports have also shown that 20 years ago, 0.01 per cent of the tick population were thought to harbour infection.

"Today that figure is 20 per cent.

"Tick populations are multiplying, and they will multiply even quicker if Scottish Government fails to authorise Asulam for bracken control.

“Bracken is an aggressive and invasive weed. It is growing frantically throughout the hillsides of Scotland. Much of the bracken on my land is on steep terrain, difficult if not downright dangerous to reach on foot. That makes it absolutely perilous and impossible to try and control mechanically.

"The bracken is so dense, it is difficult to see where you are going, and this will lead to accidents if people are trying to control bracken using quads and other machinery. We have tried other methods of controlling bracken on smaller, flatter areas.

"But these methods aren’t effective, the bracken keeps coming back.

Lorna Slater
Lorna Slater

“The Scottish Government want us to use an alternative, but what is the alternative?

"Scottish farmers don’t use chemicals if they can avoid it, but in this case, it is the only viable option.

“It's vital that the Scottish Government makes a decision on this urgently. Aerial contractors only have a short window to spray the bracken. They also need to order the chemical from overseas, which can take up to six weeks.

"They can only do this when the emergency authorisation has been approved.

“The delay in Scottish Government issuing the authorisation last year meant not as much bracken was sprayed in 2022 than in previous years.

"This meant that money that had gone into controlling the bracken before 2022 is in effect lost and makes it harder to control in future years. "Controlling bracken is something you need to keep on top of, not do once and then think it’s all fine.

“Where bracken grows, the land is unproductive.

"We can’t work it or get an income from it. Nothing else grows there, so there’s no biodiversity or climate benefits either. It’s a monoculture of weeds. The only way to control this insidious plant is to aerial spray with Asulam.

"That is the only way we can continue to produce food from our hillsides, keep our animals and the public safe, and sustain the rural economy.

“Again, we press Lorna Slater, the Scottish Government Minister in charge, to urgently issue the authorisation to use Asulam this season. To not do so would be a dereliction of duty to farmers, crofters, the rural workforce, animal welfare and the general public.”

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