The Citizen’s Army: why 1.3m of us could be called up to fight giant hogweed

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Name: The Citizens’ Army.

Age: As a concept, ancient; as a mobilised force, still in the planning stages.

I’m ready. Sign me up. Really?

Yes, really. I’ve been sitting in my flat for months, with no social life except my Zoom book club. And I haven’t read the book. I’m sorry.

I just want to go outside and fight something. OK. If the agriculture bill is given the green light in parliament, you could well be one of 1.3 million volunteers on the frontline.

Who will we be fighting? Invaders.

I like the sound of this. Which branch of the services will I be in? Biosecurity.

But I don’t know anything about that. Don’t worry. You will be fully trained to recognise and neutralise the enemy.

Amazing! Who is the enemy? Floating pennywort. Australian swamp stonecrop. Signal crayfish. Himalayan balsam.

Are these operational codewords? No, they are invasive species.

Wait. You mean plants? Well, the signal crayfish is a crustacean, but yeah, mostly plants.

You told me I was joining a citizens’ army, but really you’re just sending me out weeding. The threat to the nation is real. Invasive species cost the UK economy GBP1.8bn a year by transmitting disease and harming biodiversity.

I was hoping for something a bit more glamorous and dangerous. If it’s danger you’re after, we can send you in against Heracleum mantegazzianum.

The notorious double agent? It’s the Latin name for giant hogweed, which is native to the Caucasus and was first introduced to Britain in the 19th century.

So a plant. A diabolical enemy: it can grow to 5m in height, and spreads along waterways into towns and gardens. It is so dangerous, it is against the law to grow it.

Does it bite? No, but its sap is phototoxic, reacting with light when it comes into contact with the skin.

Stings, does it? Just brushing up against the leaves can result in life-changing burns and scarring. If the sap gets in your eyes, you could go blind. It’s also known as wild rhubarb.

It can blind you and somebody named it after rhubarb? It does seem kind of perverse when you think about it.

I don’t think I want to be in the citizens’ army after all. We can start you on invasive moths if you’d rather.

To be honest, I’ve had second thoughts about going outside. Right. As you were.

Do say: “We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them in the fields and in the streets.”

Don’t say: “More crumble, sarge?”

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