Snowdonia’s ‘Rhodocop’ is Aberystwyth student
15 November 2016
An Aberystwyth University student has been dubbed as Snowdonia’s new ‘Rhodocop’.
Gruffydd Jones from Pwllheli is on a mission to control the aggressive alien plant invader Rhododendron using soil science and deduction.
According to Gruffydd, who has just started a PhD at Aberystwyth, it is difficult to control Rhododendron and consequently Wales’ biodiversity is under threat.
Gruffydd will be working with Snowdonia National Park and Natural Resources Wales and is funded jointly by Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol and Aberystwyth University.
Rhododendron spreads rapidly, invading vast areas of land.
It is estimate that the total area covered by Rhododendron in Snowdonia National Park is equivalent to around 5,000 football pitches.
Snowdonia National Park Authority (SNPA), National Trust (NT) and Natural Resources Wales (NRW) have been very successful in controlling this species in North Wales using slash and burn plus application of herbicide to any regrowth.
However this process is costly and labour intensive and it does not stop Rhododendron seedlings from establishing on cleared sites.
Gruffydd said; “I am determined get to the root of this problem and aim to contribute to the end of this ecological tyranny by focusing entirely on the soil, making the soil unwelcome for those seeds to germinate and establish in the future.
“If we can we manipulate the soil where it grows then this species would not be able to re-establish by seed, post clearance. Some gardeners even find it very hard to grow ornamental Rhododendrons because of the soil so this is something we can work with.”
Vigorous rhododendron growth is due to a number of factors in Wales and it thrives in the wet, temperate climate and the acidic soils of upland areas.
Rhododendron also produces vast numbers of seed and these very small and light seeds can be dispersed by the wind and travel great distances, often settling in remote areas such as steep mountainsides. This is why it is difficult to control.
The species Rhododendron ponticum was reintroduced to the British Isles in the mid 1700s (possibly earlier), as an ornamental plant of estate gardens.
After introduction, it escaped the grounds of the various estates across Wales and started to colonise native habitats such as broadleaved woodlands and heathlands.
Rhododendron has no natural enemies in Wales and there are no pests or pathogens of the plant which control its population in its native habitat.
The plant also protects its young leaves from being grazed by herbivores by producing noxious chemicals.
If livestock eat this plant it can have adverse effects even interfering with their nervous system. Most cases of poisoning involve sheep or goats grazing eating leaves or buds.
Human poisoning is rare, but there have been cases in Turkey where honey is contaminated with these toxins due to bees visiting Rhododendron flowers.
Consuming the so-called “mad honey” leads in rare cases to symptoms ranging from light-headedness and nausea to hallucination, seizures and even death.
There are also suggestions that some of the chemicals produced by this plant inhibit the growth of competing plant species – a form of plant chemical warfare.
It is believed that these may be introduced into the soil from decomposing Rhododendron leaves and roots, contributing towards the areas of bare ground surrounding this plant.
Dr Dylan Gwynn Jones one of Gruffydd’s PhD supervisors added; “This is an emerging and exciting area of study, particularly if we could turn bad into good and exploit these chemicals as naturally occurring herbicides for other uses.”
Aberystwyth University is currently advertising an additional KESS II PhD opportunity to work alongside Gruffydd Jones Rhodocop from January 2017.
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