Fraudsters cashing in on knotty problem

FRAUDSTERS are cashing in on an epidemic of Japanese knotweed in Scotland by charging thousands of pounds to eradicate the damaging and invasive weed.

The number of so-called experts advertising their abilities to tackle the problem plant, which causes millions of pounds of damage a year, has rocketed from just a few to dozens in the past five years.

Scotland on Sunday has learned that contractors are charging up to ten times as much as they should be to remove small sections of the giant weed from gardens, and often do not have the qualifications required to do the job.

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Some of the companies have posted videos on the internet showing themselves in action without the necessary safety gear and applying dangerous herbicides wrongly.

In one case, a website even has a link to a picture that is supposed to identify the weed, but it shows a different plant entirely.

The Property Care Association is now planning to set up a trade body to regulate the industry with strict criteria for membership. It believes operators should have legally-approved qualifications for commercial spraying of pesticide and for advising on their use.

Professor Max Wade, director of ecology at international consultancy RPS Group, who is helping set up the trade body, said he was aware that some contractors were operating as invasive weed controllers without qualifications or expertise.

He said: “It’s one of those situations that has got out of hand. A whole range of contractors have jumped on the bandwagon, saying this plant can come through concrete, bring down your house. It’s completely out of perspective.”

He added: “The trade association would provide choice for people and would cover all aspects from professional competencies to an assurance that work will be completed to a standard that meets the requirements of the mortgage lenders.”

Japanese knotweed was first brought to Scotland by wealthy Victorians looking for an attractive and exotic plant to brighten up their gardens.

In its native Japan, knotweed is controlled naturally by insects and fungus. But in Britain it has now become the most invasive, alien species currently spreading around the country. It can grow up to 10cm a day and, if unchecked, long roots and shoots can damage building foundations.

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One recently-widowed woman who lives near Aberdeen discovered she had Japanese knotweed in her garden after she decided to put it up for sale. She was told banks would not give a mortgage for the property unless the infestation was dealt with. The 61-year-old contacted a company after an internet search and was “horrified” by the response.

“He said the price would be £10,125 plus £400 first just for coming to look at it,” she said. “There were only small patches of the plant in two places. I was horrified.”

In the quote, she was told it would require a “five-year spraying programme” consisting of 16 visits.

“They were definitely trying to rip me off,” added the woman, who did not want to be named in case it affected her ability to sell her home.

Another contractor carried out the job for £1,680 in just two visits and gave a five-year guarantee.

In another example, a company quoted £300,000 for the weeds to be removed from a demolished petrol station – ten times the price given by another company. Another quote to clear a tiny patch from a garden in Edinburgh was for a five-year treatment costing £3,575 plus VAT.

Graham Rudd, who runs a company which specialises in knotweed control and has all the necessary qualifications, said: “Due to the infestation being so small, it was possible to eradicate the Japanese knotweed with one application of herbicide. The work took two minutes.”

Rudd added: “There are lots of amateurs trying to tap into a big market. The Japanese knotweed market has just gone crazy. People have pound signs flashing in their eyes.”

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Videos posted on the internet by companies advertising weed control services show workers operating without the correct safety glasses, suits and gloves. In one, an employee wearing the wrong clothing is using a large syringe to spray large quantities of the chemical all over a plant when it should have been used to inject very small amounts directly into the stem.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency said that companies which used herbicides already have legal responsibilities under pesticide and plant protection product regulations. These mean that users must comply with the instructions on the product label, be competent in their duties and have received adequate instruction and guidance in the safe, efficient and humane use of pesticides.