Farm leaders fight to keep bracken-killer

FARMING leaders are campaigning to the last minute to try to keep the use of a bracken-killing chemical.

The EU is set to ban Asulox (the market name of asulam) because it fears the chemical’s residue in spinach is too high.

NFU Scotland says the chemical is barely used for spinach but is relied on heavily for clearing bracken and dockens.

And, farmers say, there is no other targeted effective weed killer to control the rhizome which is poisonous to cattle, sheep and horses.

Yarrow valley farmer Billy Renwick said: “Asulox is the only thing we have just now that can control bracken especially on the steep hillsides where we can’t do anything else with it. There is nothing else on the markets that kills it. There are other weed killers but they are not selective, they kill everything.”

The EU’s Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health (SCoFCAH) will make its decision at a meeting today and tomorrow.

NFU Scotland has been lobbying politicians, asking MEPs to get on-side colleagues from other member states who will be voting on the issue but whose countries are not necessarily affected by bracken.

Unless MEPs vote against it, the committee plans to stop the use of asulam from September next year.

NFUS’s Borders regional manager, Lisa Roberts, said: “Loss of this product means land managers would have no effective tools for the control of bracken. This would have serious implications for the environment, public and animal health and the rural economy. We urge decision-makers to acknowledge the significance of this product to Borders producers.”

Bracken spreads rapidly via long underground stems and blocks out grass. Most stock avoid eating the poisonous weed but it can be big enough to hide stock, making management difficult. And it harbours sheep ticks which spread the debilitating Lyme disease.

Mr Renwick said: “It’s an ongoing problem on the hills. When you burn heather, the bracken can come through and smother out the heather: we have got to keep spraying bracken or it takes over. It’s so thick there is not very much can grow in below it.”

He farms 8,500 acres. Of that he is allowed to treat about 4,000 acres, of which he sprays 50 to 60 acres a year.

NFU Scotland’s policy manager, Andrew Bauer said: “SCoFCAH is basing its thinking on the use of asulam on food crops and not for bracken. Because asulam is licensed at an EU level, but used predominantly in the UK, it may be difficult to communicate the importance of the issue to a committee that is made up of representatives from every member state, for most of whom bracken control is not a problem.

“Applications to licence plant protection products for use in the EU have to be made on the basis of a product’s representative use. When the product’s original licence holder, Bayer applied for the licence, it did so on the basis of asulam’s application to spinach crops and not bracken.

“When United Phosphorous bought the rights to asulam in 2006 they were not allowed to change the terms of its representative use, although the product was barely being used for spinach, rather for bracken and dock control.

“If bracken is not controlled, it grows rampantly, overtaking crucial grazing land and providing a habitat in which parasitic ticks thrive, causing a threat to animal health and human health, for instance through Lyme disease.”

Dense bracken cover can cause land to be ineligible for Single Farm Payment and Less Favoured Area support, he said and, if left unchecked, can lead to cross-compliance penalties for farmers as well.

“We hope very much that our efforts through as many channels as possible to press SCoFCAH for a sensible decision on this issue are successful, and we shall continue in our attempts until the last possible minute,” said Mr Bauer.