8:00 AM July 23, 2022
Charles Sinclair writes for the Herald on behalf of the Sid Valley Biodiversity Group.
Each Tuesday in the early part of the summer, the Balsam Bashers are out in the countryside helping to clear the valley of Himalayan Balsam.
It’s hard work, bending over, tugging at the base of a large stem and throwing it into an increasingly large pile. The speed with which this non-native is able to colonise and smother our native flowers is alarming.
Determined action is the only way of keeping Himalayan Balsam under control. In parts of the valley, it is so well established it has been able to dominate bramble, thistle and bindweed, creating masses of stems, cheek by jowl.
Himalayan Balsam was introduced to the UK in 1839 and is now the largest annual plant in the UK, growing up to eight-foot from a tiny seed by July.
Being a non-native means that much of the native wildlife has not been able to adapt to its presence.
Most of our wildlife is therefore unable to benefit from it or live alongside it.
The photo shows just how much balsam has been removed from quite a small area. You can see very little other vegetation growing up where it has been removed.
Himalayan Balsam enjoys damp conditions and the course of a river like the Sid is an ideal habitat for it. It also tolerates low levels of light so it can grow in thin woodland quite successfully.
It can be found in most of the uncultivated land near the river, dominating several delicate and valuable ecosystems.
At first sight Himalayan Balsam might seem to have some redeeming features with rich pink strongly scented flowers held on sturdy plants that grow in profusion and tower above the local natural vegetation.
These plants make a huge amount of pollen and watching bees return to their hive with a Mohican like stripe of pollen on their hairy backs made me wonder at first if they had been infected with a new disease.
And the manner of their seed dispersal might appear to be rather fun as the ripe paper-clip sized pods burst open firing the seeds up to seven metres away. By simply touching the tip of a ripe seed pod, it bursts sending the seeds in all directions.
But, of course, this means that the explosive seed capsules eject the seeds into the river in their tens of thousands, travelling downstream to colonise new stretches of bank.
Winter flood water then carries seeds into all the areas near to the river which germinate to form new plants the following year. Successful management of a Himalayan Balsam infested waterway needs to start at the top of the catchment and clear all the plants as you make your way downstream. One year’s work
clearing the plants means the seed load in the soil next year is considerably less and their removal significantly easier. Three years of conscientious pulling and the habitat should be returning once more to its natural state.
Roger Woolley has been involved in clearing the balsam from the Sid Valley for over six years and now heads the team. He is optimistic about gaining back the heavily infested areas of the valley.
He estimated that 60% has been cleared so far below Sidford Bridge and the team is pressing hard to get on top of the rest. But he knows the job will never be totally complete. Vigilance will always be necessary to prevent new outbreaks.
The Sid is a short river, so completing the task is at least a possibility. It requires the co-operation of all the land owners upstream in order to ensure eradication. At least we have a chance here, thanks to the magnificent efforts of Sidmouth’s Balsam Bashers.
If you are interested in helping the Balsam Bashers in their task, please contact Peter Endersby and Lynette Talbot. Peter and Lynette set up the group initially as part of Sidmouth In Bloom; there email address is email@example.com