Picture me this weekend, trudging along a Highland road in persistent rain, my not-very-showerproof jacket clinging soggily to my shirt. As I pass through a village, the water stops suddenly as if a tap has been turned off.
The sun doesn’t exactly come out, but the soft air brightens and the earth starts to smell the way it does after rain. Birds sing and I drink in the scent of a rose bush overhanging the fence in a cottage garden. Below me on the hillside, a couple of sheep graze peacefully under a beech tree in a rolling green field. It looks like a field in the Cotswolds. But wait – what? Something is wrong with this picture.
All of the other fields I have passed have bracken around. The verge is thick with it, dark green with purple foxgloves poking through. Most of the crofts look as if they have been cutting it back with strimming – you can tell because after a couple of years the bracken comes back but it is weedy and low, a paler shade.
But this person’s land is completely free of bracken – an alien field from another ecosystem. It looks very much as if they have been using the chemical Asulox (generic name Asulam). This has been in the news recently because the Scottish government has refused permission for its use for the first time this year. It is banned in Europe but the UK government (acting as the English government in this case) is continuing to allow it. There has been a huge backlash, with newspapers megaphoning demands from farmers and landowners to be allowed to spray it here, as they can down south.
The house amid the bracken-free land is a stone building, fairly modest but larger than the others in the village. There is no car in the drive, so I don’t really expect to find anyone there but I walk boldly up the drive anyway. As I arrive, a thin, dark-haired man in his 40s emerges, a wooden easel on his shoulder. He is an artist who has been allowed to stay for a few days to sketch – pen and ink drawings of plants and views. The owner is a wealthy landowner with an estate in England who comes here regularly – at least a week a year. The artist has never visited before and has no knowledge of how the land is managed, but he will let his friend know that I called.
Dismissed, I knock on the door of a nearby cottage. The crofter confirms that Asulox has been regularly used on the laird’s land (it was not illegal until recently). The laird owns a lot of land around the village and last year he offered to put up thousands of pounds to have the whole area, all the verges and all the common grazing sprayed. The offer was politely declined. “It’s a chemical, it is a poison. It obviously affects more than just the bracken. There is no need for it.”
So, there is no one here to defend the practice in person today, but the arguments used by pro-Asulox campaigners are well-rehearsed. The Times Scotland’s articles in the last couple of weeks include: “Bracken could overrun hills in Scotland if allowed to spread unchecked”. Bracken, the article argues, is a health hazaard which harbours ticks which cause Lyme’s disease. Spraying large areas with this chemical is the only effective solution. Not using this will also increase fire risk. I normally respect the Times but in this case, it has not covered the other side of the story fairly.
The pretty green field I am looking at is very close to the shallow bay of a sea loch. It is networked by ditches and burns that sing over pebbles, clear and fast and running into the sea in minutes. In a sea loch, the water doesn’t change very fast, it sits around. The sheltered shallows are where everything spawns. This is where shellfish like mussels grow, concentrating toxins within themselves as they filter huge volumes of water in search of minute particles of food. Asulox may be a carcinogen, and it also may be an endocrine disruptor, one of a range of chemicals that changes the gender of fish.
I stop further along the road at a croft where the owners are using strimming to control the vegetation. It is a labour-intensive solution but it becomes easier with persistence, Andy tells me. He is one of the new breed of crofters, a part-timer with a background in science. The strimmed area will be planted with fruit trees and they will have bees.
We stand for a few minutes looking at the verdant bracken stretching up the hill above the road. Andy is perplexed by some of the arguments for using Asulox. “If you have a lot of deer and sheep on your land, you are going to have ticks. They will just fall off onto the grass. We don’t have much bracken on our land but I often get ticks when I am working on it.
“The bracken is part of an ecosystem. There are shrews and voles and moles in there as well as millions of spiders at every level of the bracken. There is funghi under the canopy. The rhizome root system is linked to the trees and the other plants. The ground is not compacted under bracken as it can be in bare fields. The organic matter that falls on it enriches the soil and the top soil is thin here so that matters. We believe in working with the ecosystem – not trying to poison it.”
The need to control bracken is linked to sheep grazing, he explains. People don’t tend to grow crops on areas that bracken likes – they are too hilly. In previous eras black cattle were the beast of choice on Highland crofts and they trampled down the bracken. Crofters also harvested bracken for various uses. The introduction of sheep was itself linked to the Clearances and, in Andy’s view, demands that the land be sprayed with chemicals to make it better suited to sheep has echoes of that and is “cultural colonialism”.
The flipside of that is that for people who are trying to rear sheep on hilly pasture, the overgrowth of bracken can be a real issue.
What distresses Andy is that the issue has become so polarising – people are on one side or the other and don’t want to have a reasoned debate.
Nobody wants to be quoted by name. City folk may be exercised about multi-gender bathrooms and the like, I reflect, but folk in the countryside have their wedge issues too.
Asulox – notes
Letter from the Health and Safety Executive explaining the reasons for banning Asulox in Scotland and Wales.: “A conclusion on the endocrine-disrupting properties for non-target organisms cannot be made based on the information available. The long-term risk to birds and mammals also continues to be a critical area of concern. Furthermore, water companies have reported asulam levels detected in water reservoirs above their safety limit (which is not part of pesticides legislation). Whilst these levels are below what the environmental modelling for aquatic exposure predicts, asulam’s status as a potential endocrine disruptor means that the risk to drinking water must be considered high in the absence of data to the contrary”.
Nature Scot – bracken management best practice
National Farmers Union Scotland Asulox statement
Asulox “link to thyroid cancer”
Asuloc: “Toxic to marine life”
Asulox: Toxic to mosses
Why are these male fish growing eggs? National Geographic
Lunch with the FT : Global Sperm Counts Are Falling – this scientist believes she knows why.
First published on the author’s Substack A letter from Scotland