There have been exciting developments in the wonderful world of bracken control! 

Bracken is the UK’s most common fern and grows on heathland, moorland, hillsides and in woodland.

For many years, bracken in the UK has been controlled, in large part, through the use of a herbicide known Asulam, which is the active ingredient in the product Asulox. Asulox has been banned since 2012 due to concerns over the harms it causes, but has been approved every year since via emergency authorisations. This is a blatant misuse of the emergency authorisations system which was designed to enable the use of banned pesticides in exceptional circumstances rather than used repeatedly over many years as a loophole to avoid a ban. 

In October, global pesticide giant UPL – and the manufacturers of Asulam – announced that they are “to withdraw from carrying out further work on a permanent solution that would support the use of Asulam in the future.” In other words, UPL is unwilling to provide the additional information required to enable an emergency approval of Asulox to be granted. This effectively means that an application for an emergency derogation will not be possible and therefore Asulox will not be permitted for use in 2024. 

This decision follows interesting developments among the devolved nations which have the power to make their own decisions on which pesticides to approve for emergency use. In summer 2023 the governments of tWales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all refused the emergency authorisation of Asulox – following the advice of the Health and Safety Executive. However, England ignored the HSE’s advice and did grant the application. 

The Scottish Government said that they are “committed to science based decision making” and that the risk Asulox poses to the environment and to human health are significant. The UK Government’s own Expert Committee on Pesticides agreed with the position of the HSE that these adverse effects outweigh any potential benefits of the herbicide.

The Welsh Government said that “in order to tackle the nature and climate emergency we need to apply more robust environmental controls to deliver for nature now and for the future” and they agreed with the Scottish Government that the potential adverse effects of Asulox outweigh any potential benefits. 

The devolved nations’ refusal to allow the emergency use of Asulox almost certainly contributed to UPL’s decision – which is a huge testament both to the progressive stance of the devolved nations when it comes to pesticides and their potential influence over the way the UK chooses to govern pesticides. .

This is a win for herbicide reduction and a positive step forward for controlling bracken without pesticides, as well as a reminder about how decisions like these have real implications and can counter the power of the pesticide industry. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the opportunity to continue to go further than England, by introducing pesticide reduction targets and introducing a ban on the urban use of pesticides. We need governments to continue to take bold decisions like this, for the sake of our health and the health of our environment.