Europe and Central Asia
14 Dec 2016

And a Partridge in a pear tree

(c) Andy Lidstone /
By Danny Heptinstall

Danny Heptinstall, Policy Officer with the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), explains how his work to protect Europe’s native fauna and flora from the bio-security threat posed by ‘invasive alien species’ has made him see the traditional English Christmas carol, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ in an entirely new light – a parable of nature conservation.


On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love sent to me…

12 drummers drumming,

11 pipers piping,

10 lords a-leaping,

9 ladies dancing,

8 maids a-milking,

7 swans a-swimming,

6 geese a-laying,

5 gold rings,

4 calling birds,

3 French hens,

2 turtle doves…

….and a partridge in a pear tree!


Following its first appearance in the 1780s children’s book Mirth without Mischief, the classic English Christmas carol ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ knew several lyrical variations before settling on the Victorian version so loved today. ‘Pipers piping’ briefly became ‘Ships a-sailing’ and ‘Lords a-leaping’ became ‘Bells ringing’, yet one element remains in eternal flight – the birds.

Birds – swans, calling birds (derived from ‘colly’, old slang for ‘black’), hens, turtle-doves and one proud partridge – fill half the verses of this ode to love and giving, a testimony to how our feathered friends have long captured imaginations. Yet the ‘2 turtle-doves’ now sing a more melancholy tune – their UK population numbers are in freefall and, sadly, the 2016 IUCN Red List of critically endangered species (published just last week) maintains the ‘vulnerable’ status that they were elevated to last year.

In this time of seasonal cheer and goodwill, this is a sobering thought and a timely reminder of the goodwill the EU can show our native fauna and flora in the New Year when the European Parliament prepares for an April vote on updating the ‘List of Invasive Alien Species of Union Concern’. Invasive species have been an essential factor in most bird extinctions over the past century and they contribute to the current plight of 44% of the IUCN’s Red List. Many are disease ridden and carry severe implications for native wildlife, livestock, domestic pets and, in some cases, humans. Indeed, the European Commission estimates that they cause at least €12.5 billion worth of damage to the union’s economy annually.

As nature knows no borders, solutions must be enforced on a Europe-wide basis. Earlier this year, the EU black listed 37 invasive alien species, but moves to add an additional 12 species are proving difficult. A small, yet influential, number of protesting voices – from the fur trade and commercial horticulturalists to well-meaning gardeners and pet-owners – threaten to block the European Commission from doing what is necessary to protect Nature here in Europe.

While it would be helpful if all that was harmful immediately appeared to our eyes as suitably hideous and terrifying, Nature, in her staggering complexity, does not always gift us such simplicity – poison can come in the prettiest of packages. No one could deny the keen gardener’s love of nature as they prick their thumbs while pruning rose bushes or strain their back while turning the soil, heavy spade in hand. But the sad truth is that some exotic and ornamental species beloved by European gardeners cannot be controlled. Chilean rhubarb, for example, with its large leaves creates dense shade, preventing other species from germinating or growing. With 250,000 seeds produced per plant, their spread can be rapid and relentless, as has been the case on Achill Island off the Atlantic coast of Ireland. 

Similarly, while no one could argue with a dog being a ‘man’s best friend’, it would be dangerous for people and other mammals (both wild and domestic) to extend the same sentiment to the Raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) – which sits at the top of the list of proposed 12 species. Back home, in its native Asia, the Raccoon dog is a valued member of the ecosystem. But here in Europe – where it has found increasing popularity as an exotic pet – its rapid population growth is disrupting the delicate balance of our local habitats. With its inherent adaptability, reproduction rates and lack of natural predators or competitors, it is likely to become one of the most numerous, widespread and disease-ridden (it is a notable vector of rabies) predators in Europe, if left unchecked.

Unless more attention is given to the biosecurity threat posed by these ‘alien’ invasions, if these 12 proposed species fail to make the EU Black List, then this time next year, we could be singing very different words to the tune of ‘The 12 days of Christmas’.

The 12 drummers and 11 pipers would be playing a solemn funeral march for the local fish and waterbirds who have had their habitats infested by aggressive plants such as Nuttall’s waterweed and Broadleaf Watermilfoil.

The 10 lords and 9 ladies would find little room to either ‘leap’ or ‘dance’ because of the destructive spread of Indian (Himalayan) balsam, Japanese stiltgrass and Chilean rhubarb across our landscape.

The 8 maids a-milking would not be milking dairy cows but desperately cutting back Common milkweed from their farmland because its leaves and follicles are toxic to sheep and other large mammals.

The 7 swans a-swimming would find riverbanks degraded by the burrowing activity of Muskrats and find their waterways plagued with Alligator weed which reduces water flow and quality by preventing light penetration and oxygenation of the water.

The 6 geese a-laying would not be European geese but rather Egyptian geese.

The 5 gold rings would not refer to jewellery but raised blisters caused by the poisonous sap of Giant hogweed.

And what of the birds? Alas, the 4 calling birds, 3 French hens, 2 turtle-doves and partridge may have been eaten by the wayward Raccoon dog!

This is not the Christmas carol that we want to pass down to future generations, so this festive season, let’s jingle our bells and make a big loud noise about the threat of invasive alien species. If the Members of the European Parliament hear us and heed our warnings, then their votes can ensure that 2017 is indeed a very happy New Year for Nature!


Danny Heptinstall is a Policy Officer with RSPC (BirdLife in the UK) working on Invasive Alien Species policy.

The 12 proposed species are: Raccoon dog (mammal), Muskrat (mammal), Egyptian goose (Bird), Alligator weed (plant), Common milkweed (plant), Nuttall’s Waterweed (plant), Chilean Rhubarb (plant), Giant hogweed (plant), Indian (Himalayan) balsam (Plant), Japanese stiltgrass (plant), Braodleaf Watermilfoil (plant), and Crimson fountaingrass (plant).

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.