Tiny island battles to cut, spray and burn rhododendrons down to size

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The rhododendron is loved by many for its vivid and colourful flowers but on the small Hebridean island of Colonsay it has become a curse. The exotic plant threatens to engulf the island, wrecking one of Scotland's smallest island communities.

The rhododendron is loved by many for its vivid and colourful flowers but on the small Hebridean island of Colonsay it has become a curse. The exotic plant threatens to engulf the island, wrecking one of Scotland's smallest island communities.

Rhododendrons were originally imported to the island around 1900 by the laird, Lord Strathcona, to enrich his estate gardens, and for most of the century they remained con-fined to the gardens of his home, Kiloran House. But 10 years ago they began to spread, and now endanger Colonsay's agricultural economy and its lifeblood, tourism.

For a decade, the bushes have grown more than tenfold and have now colonised more than 300 hectares. Biologists, surprised by the explosive growth, have calculated it is spreading across the 12 sq km island at roughly 1 sq km every five years, smothering all other plants in its path.

It is jeopardising a large but very fragile Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on north Colonsay, home to rare species such as oakwood, dwarf rowan, dwarf birch and rare heathers, and the marsh fritillary and purple hairstreak butterflies. Worryingly for the crofters, cattle and sheep are also threatened by the plant's poisonous leaves.

To tackle the crisis, the islanders have been given nearly £120,000 by Argyll and Island Enterprise, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Forestry Commission and a lottery-funded regional environment programme called Nadair to clear the plant. The project will involve 16 years of spraying, cutting, burning and uprooting to control the plant and its seedlings, which take five years to mature.

Andrew Abrahams, a local oyster farmer who helped to found the company formed last week to oversee the project - the Colonsay Community Development Company - said the project was vital to the environment. Two or three islanders will be hired to work full or part time for the most intensive labour; another six locals will be employed during peak periods.

Mr Abrahams said: "If we just stood back and watched things deteriorate, it would just creep up on us. And in another 10 years, no amount of public funds would be enough to do something about it."

Controlling the plant could be crucial to Colonsay's future. Amid continuing economic decline throughout the Hebrides, Colonsay is enjoying a renaissance. Its population, still partly Gaelic-speaking, has grown to more than 100 thanks to incomers escaping the stresses of urban life, and 13 children are now at the island's primary school.

After decades in which crofting and fishing were mainstays, the island now depends on tourists and naturalists drawn by Colonsay's unusually mild climate, its deserted beaches, spectacular ocean views and striking open moorland, each of which is now threatened by the presence of the rhododendron.

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