Brexit will save us from the Obama Flatworm, claims #OPatz.

Owen Paterson – the gift that keeps giving

The impact of invasive species, so we are repeatedly told, is one of the biggest threats to the future of global biodiversity. Himalayan balsam rampages through the countryside, while Ash dieback has now reached about two thirds of the native range of Ash in the UK. Yes, it’s coming to an ash-wood near you. Signal crayfish carry a virus which kills our native white-clawed version of this remarkable little crustacean. And of course Grey Squirrels carry the pox which kills out plucky native Reds.

These invasives, whether macro, or micro, are all about us.


But wait! Salvation is at hand! Yes, it’s our old friend Owen Paterson, scourge of the football-post hiding Badgers,  who has the answer. What could it be? A new massive funding stream? Armies of invasive species inspectors, tooled up with the necessary weaponry, scouring the countryside like Eco ghostbusters? No. For OPatz, there are only usually a handful of options to choose from. And unsurprsingly, his answer is……


Yes reader, Brexit is the answer to all our problems, even problems associated with free and unfettered global trade. Because somehow, magically, even as we throw open our borders to the benefits of free trade , we will still somehow do exactly the opposite when it comes to letting in the unwelcome seafarers. This is the core argument, if it can be described as such, laid out by Paterson in a speech he recently gave to the Competitive Enterprise Institute. I suppose it would be worth pointing out that the CEI is a neolibertarian American think tank which has been funded by the Koch brothers, has prior convictions for defending the Tobacco Industry and for Climate Change Denial, but you would have all guessed that from the name. Indeed it was Myron Ebell, the notorious “enemy of environmentalism” who advised Trump on climate denial during his election, who invited OPatz to speak. They must be good friends.

Paterson is clearly pleased with his talk – perhaps it garnered a few generous US donations for his own thinktank. The talk is here .  Paterson claims that Brexit will free us from the shackles of the EU which have been preventing us from taking much more action against invasive species and focusses in on one particular issue – the import of invasives via the horticulture industry. As plants are moved around the world in horticulture, they carry (often as eggs) plant pests and pathogens from one country to another. The New Zealand flatworm was one which apparently arrived that way, where there was a bit of a panic over, in the mid-90s. As it turned out the flatworm (which eats earthworms) had arrived much earlier, certainly as early as the 1960s. Paterson raised another spectre – the Obama flatworm from Brazil. How the neolibs at the CEI must have chortled at the name. But where did this new found knowledge of invasive planarians arise from? It turns out OPatz (or more likely a minion) had been reading the Buglife website. Paterson churned out more stories from Buglife, even quoting their CEO Matt Shardlow. Buglife want a complete ban on the import of pot plants into the UK.

Paterson’s argument was that once free of the EU, the UK would be able to stop all these critturs from coming in. How so? Paterson explains:

With the latest developments in technology and technique, we can capitalise on that advantage (of being an island) to develop a modern, responsive system to predict, monitor, and control the spread of pests and disease. We can implement a quarantine system with the kind of rigour found in Australia and New Zealand and ensure that the UK becomes a haven for animals, birds, plants and trees for generations to come.”

What might this technology be? We have a clue from one of the most influential Brexit thinktanks on the block at the moment, the Legatum Institute. They recommended solving the problems of a porous border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, by patrolling it with airships. Airships which can sniff out flatworm eggs hiding in pot plants and – well presumably zap them with some sort of worm-ray. Without harming anything or anyone else.

Later in the speech, Paterson also hilariously attacked the EU for its ban on neonicotinoids, and the “Green Blob” of NGOs which he seems to think run policy at the European Commission. Did he not realise that Buglife were part of that blob?

A number of things occurred to me when reading this latest piece of nonsense from Paterson. Firstly, Paterson oversaw massive cuts in Defra funding during his time there. Funding that would have paid for researchers and staff carrying out phytosanitary checks. Similar cuts at the Home Office have done for customs staff doing spot checks and intelligence work. So the infrastructure available to carry out phytosanitary checks is no longer there.

Secondly it was the EU which wrote the 2014 Invasive Species Regulation which is still being transposed into UK law. Will Paterson be lobbying for the UK regulations to be strengthened during the EU withdrawal review process? Before this EU regulation, the UK legislation on invasive species was pretty weak. The Green Blob welcomed the EU regulation as a strengthening of protections against invasives.

Countries like New Zealand and Australia do have stringent customs checks on entry, to try and stop invasives arriving, with some success. There are bins for you to deposit any food, or plant material you might have  on you – and hefty fines if you forget. You can be required to clean all mud off your boots and airliner cabins are sprayed with insecticide on landing, to kill disease carrying insects. Is this what will happen in the UK of the future? What about that pesky Irish border, where flatworms can slime their way across into Britannia UNDER THE SOIL.

Are invasives the massive problem that Paterson suggests? It’s true that pathogens are threatening a handful of iconic species – the crayfish, the Red Squirrel. Ash dieback (which likely arrived on the wind as well as on infected nursery tree stock) is going to ravage our ash woods. There have been success stories – such as rat eradication for seabird colonies. But compared to the impacts of modern intensive agriculture, or climate change, as far as the UK is concerned, it’s not the biggest issue facing nature.

And the idea that Brexit, where our borders will be thrown open to global trade, where our public sector is even further starved of funding, will be the answer, is as ludicrous as every other Paterson solution.


About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in Brexit, invasive species, Owen Paterson and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Brexit will save us from the Obama Flatworm, claims #OPatz.

  1. David Dunlop says:

    Maybe you should send Mr Paterson a copy of this along with a map of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland? I know where some of the WW1 airship mooring stations in Co Antrim used to be, if that would help him…

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