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Drone Technology Tackling Invasive Plant Species

Ross Kelly


Aerial drones are being deployed along the banks of the Spey River as part of a project to identify and control invasive plant species. 

Along the banks of the River Spey, drones are being deployed to root out invasive plant species as part of an initiative by Scottish Natural Heritage.

The River Spey is the first Scottish waterway to benefit from the use of the technology, which aims to identify giant hogweed and Japanese knotweed plants.

Scottish Natural Heritage

The aerial photography survey of the lower stretch of the River Spey, from Fochabers to Spey Bay, was funded by Crown Estate Scotland.

The initiative is a four-year partnership project, led by Scottish Natural Heritage with additional funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Working throughout the north of Scotland from the Tay catchment to the remote areas of North West Sutherland, it is hoped that several invasive species of plants can be controlled or removed.

Identifying and eliminating invasive species is integral in protecting local vegetation and plant species. Giant hogweed out-competes native species, disrupts the ecosystem and causes serious burns to human skin upon contact. Japanese knotweed is another fast-growing plant species that swamps native vegetation and can harm the ecosystem.

Thus far the operation has located a number of hidden patches of both species and is also controlling American mink and Himalayan balsam.

Key Challenges

Brian Shaw, a biologist with the Spey Fisheries Board, commented that the operation to identify foreign plant species has been underway for several years, with the initiative making great progress.

“We’ve been tackling invasive species along the River Spey for a number of years now,” he said. “And we have made excellent progress upstream of Fochabers.”

Shaw added: “We are confident that the upper river is now clear of these pesky plants and we’ve gradually been working our way downstream.”

The operation to identify and remove invasive species, Shaw said, has been challenging due to the dense foliage and difficult terrain along the banks of the river – but the deployment of drone technology is fuelling progress:

“We are now turning our attention to the Lower Spey – but the woodland alongside the river is really dense and finding the plants is extremely difficult, it’s like fighting through a jungle. By using aerial photography, we are able to ensure we aren’t missing anything.”

Although results have been promising so far, James Symonds, Spey project officer for the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative conceded there are still significant challenges ahead.

He said: “The survey was fantastic, but it did reveal some huge stands of Knotweed and Hogweed that we were previously unaware of so there will be a lot more hard work over the next few years until we can get these areas under control.

“We’ve all joined forces to tackle the Giant hogweed and will re-double our efforts next year in a concerted and concentrated attack on this problem plant. Of course, we’d welcome any new volunteers who want to join us to help.”

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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