February 27, 2013

Always look on the bright side of LIFE!

Up to € 278 million are available to EU Member States for projects under the seventh LIFE+ call for proposals recently published, and also this year invasive alien species (IAS) are explicitly mentioned within the “Indicative list of themes for LIFE+ Nature and Biodiversity projects”. This means that biological invasions are one of the themes for which the European Commission (EC) would welcome receiving proposals to be co-financed. In fact, two headings are particularly suitable for addressing the problems of IAS: Nature and Biodiversity (NAT) and Information and Communication (INF). For example, according to the NAT application brochure:
 Within the classic LIFE+ Nature projects most of the priorities listed in the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 may be effectively addressed: e.g. invasive alien species through control and eradication in and around Natura 2000 sites
The LIFE brochure on IAS

Under the NAT heading, two different strands exist, which are characterized by different requirements and approaches. Under the LIFE+ Nature strand, it is possible to submit projects for the control and eradication of IAS affecting either the Natura 2000 network or species covered by the Habitats and Birds Directives. Site-related conservation measures for combating IAS can be planned both inside Natura 2000 sites (insofar as they are not recurring actions and they directly benefit the species/habitats targeted by the project) and outside Natura 2000 sites. In the latter case, such measures should be carried out  on strategic spots near or adjacent to a Natura 2000 site to improve the conservation status of the species/habitats target, and to limit or prevent damage within the site. In case of species-related conservation actions for combating IAS (that are not site-related), they can be eligible insofar as they directly benefit the species of the Birds and/or Habitats Directives targeted by the project. Some special requirements must be considered in such a case. For example, applicants must provide guarantees and commitments that the investments made will be sustained in the long-term. The explanatory notes of pag.53 of the application brochure provide some additional indications on the requirements for the range of actions that can be envisaged, e.g. prevention of introductions through the prioritisation and management of pathways, establishment of early warning and rapid eradication system, and management of established IAS. The important is to show solid scientific evidence regarding the added value of the foreseen actions for the Natura 2000 sites/network, and to include an awareness raising component, particularly towards stakeholders involved in the introduction of IAS.

In case of projects aiming at tackling IAS not necessarily in respect to the Natura 2000 network, it is possible to consider submit proposals under the LIFE+ Biodiversity strand, in which case they must have a clear innovative/demonstrative character. For this particular strand, the application brochure welcomes 
projects addressing the threats posed by IAS (1) by preventing the introduction of invasive alien species, in particular by tackling pathways of unintentional introduction, (2) by establishing an early warning and rapid response system and (3) by eradicating or controlling established invasive alien species (in line with the dedicated legislative instrument which is currently under preparation, see here). 
Also in this case, the explanatory notes of pag.57 of the application brochure provide some useful clarification. In fact, also such proposals should include an awareness raising component, in particular towards stakeholders involved in the potential introduction of IAS, and should have measurable biodiversity benefits as one of their main outcomes. Besides, the foreseen actions should be targeted towards the achievement of the 2020 Biodiversity Strategy.

It is also possible to present projects dealing with the IAS issue within the INF heading. In relation to this Information and Communication strand, it is worth mentioning that the LIFE+ programme has developed a logical framework useful to design an effective communication campaign, likely to achieve some measurable impact on the environmental problem targeted (e.g. the impact of IAS) and on the level of awareness (about IAS and their threat), by addressing a specific target audience and gaining the support of specific stakeholders, and by monitoring such impact through specific indicators. More details are included in the LIFE+ INF 2013 Application Guide.

February 12, 2013

The invasion of the allergenic ragweed in Europe

The common ragweed is one of the most pollen-allergenic plants and as such represents a serious health risk for humans. Its pollen is a potent trigger of hay fever, rhinoconjunctivitis, and may often cause severe asthma-like symptoms. In Europe the incidence of ragweed allergy ranges widely from 2-50% of the allergic population (roughly ¼ of the European population shows general allergic rhinitis). The impact of common ragweed on human health – affecting mostly children and urban populations (but also horses, dogs and cats) - is not restricted to areas invaded by the plant. In fact, due to transport of ragweed pollen by air masses, allergy reactions are recorded in distances of 100s of km from the site where the plant is situated. Besides, the common ragweed also contains volatile oils that may cause skin irritation and hypersensitivity dermatitis. The associated economic costs are estimated to be around 4.5 billions of euro per year. In addition to this, the ragweed can also have an harmful impact on other sectors, such as agriculture (depending on infestation levels and success of control, yield losses of over 50% are reported). 

A synthetic and systematic review of all available information on the current extent of ragweed infestation in Europe has just been published by the EU within the new comprehensive report “Assessing and controlling the spread and the effects of common ragweed in Europe”.  The study, carried out by an international team of experts led by the Natural Environment Research Council (UK), includes an economic, social and environmental quantification of direct and indirect harmful effects in all sectors, as well as an assessment of measures to control ragweed spread and introduction (now and in future climates). 

Common ragweed (male flowers) ©  Photo: Daniela Bouvet

The common ragweed is actually a native to North America, which has colonised several countries around the world – e.g. Europe, as well as parts of Australia, China, Japan, South America and Taiwan – mostly as a contaminant of agricultural products (including the grain mixtures used as food for birds), machinery or construction materials. In Europe, where it was first introduced in France and Germany in the 1860s, started its spread in the entire region some 20-25 years ago. The result is that large populations of ragweed are now present in the old continent, particularly in Croatia, France, Hungary and Italy, but the distribution range is still expanding as a consequence of changing climate and perhaps adaptation to local climate. Moreover, changes in agricultural land use with large-scale set-aside and abandonment practices, along with an increase of the construction sites and wasteland, are expected to provide new suitable habitats for ragweed. 

The key successful features of this annual herbaceous plant - which can reach a height of over 2 m - are its great adaptability to hostile habitats, its strong ability for re-growth after mowing, and the capability of seeds to remain viable for up to 35 years in soil seed banks. It is most frequently associated with agriculture and is found in cultivated fields (mainly maize, sunflower, leguminous plants) and along irrigation canals. This typical pioneer species is also associated with frequent and extensive disturbance regimes resulting from other human activities (e.g. riverbanks, roadsides, railways, gravel pits, construction sites, waste sites, urban areas, building yards, private gardens and parks).

Common ragweed (leaves) ©  Photo: Daniela Bouvet

The common ragweed is now so widespread in Europe that eradication at this stage of the invasion is no longer feasible. However, it is possible to keep the ragweed under control by every year eliminating emerging plants as far as possible, and preventing or reducing the spread of seeds from infested to non-infested sites. So far, no successful biological control methods have been developed, thus the most effective management measures to control the propagation of this plant are clipping/mowing, uprooting, ploughing, mulching and chemical treatment. Preventive measures include initiatives to limit unintentional spread of ragweed seeds by developing and implementing best practices. In this context, a welltargeted intensive awareness raising campaign is a key to success of both prevention and control strategies (e.g. by reporting observations and making early detection possible). In fact, the EU study has shown some promising future scenario: while in 20 years time the overall impact is expected to slightly increase (about 3%), the implementation of sound management strategies could help reducing such impact by approximately 50%.