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Bowes battles Japanese Knotweed

There are individuals like Gethin Bowes, who embody the status of the state's determined soldiers in the fight against knotweed. With his stocky build and broad shoulders seemingly custom-made to bear a herbicide-spraying backpack, Bowes has become a symbol of resilience. For 18 long years, he fearlessly served in the ranks of Caerphilly, a Welsh county borough nestled along the Rhymney River. But when the time was ripe for a change, Bowes fearlessly took the leap and joined an environmental management company, where battling knotweed remained an integral part of his responsibilities.

Picture this: Bowes, knotweed-kicking hero standing tall, armed with strategies to take on a staggering one million square meters of the unruly plant that he meticulously mapped across Caerphilly. His project became legendary, not just in the UK but possibly across the entire world. And, hold your breath, he did it single-handedly! Now that's what I call knotweed conquest of epic proportions!

To truly understand Bowes' world, you must view the world through his eyes. In his eyes, the world is divided into two realms: areas infested with the beastly knotweed and everything else. One fine February afternoon, I got the honor of joining him on a tour of Caerphilly's knotweed-ridden regions. We hopped into his trusty Toyota pickup, driving through the town, passing by the mighty Caerphilly Castle, navigating quaint village streets, and climbing up scenic hills filled with grazing sheep.

As we traveled along the highways, he would frequently interrupt our chatter to point out stands of the plant he had bravely faced on the road verges. Bowes did have an eye for knotweed! Pulling over, he'd whip out his laptop, summoning ancient satellite images from Google Maps, showing me just how dense the knotweed infestation had been years ago before his heroic intervention. Talk about making a difference!

But even for a knotweed warrior like Bowes, there are battles that prove frustratingly unbeatable. We'd slow down through the villages, and he'd fix his gaze on private lands, where knotweed was flourishing like it owned the place. Sadly, he couldn't access these spots without permission, leaving him muttering with frustration, "These areas really frustrate me."

As it turns out, Bowes' connection to knotweed dates back to his childhood, spent near the murky waters and muddy shores of Wales's southern coast. Little did he know back then that those dry stems floating downstream were the notorious Japanese knotweed! His formal introduction to the plant happened after his time at agricultural college, while working at a landscaping company. At first, they fought knotweed with little success, feeling like they were in a guessing game. But as science progressed, so did their efforts, and the chemical glyphosate became the star of Bowes' professional life.

When Bowes first took on Caerphilly in 2005, his initial goal was to protect native plants in the wild from knotweed's invasion, particularly along riverbanks and woodland areas. However, he soon realized that knotweed had spread its roots throughout the entire county. Every major construction project—be it roads, bridges, hospitals, or railways—was plagued by knotweed woes, and Bowes found himself at the forefront of the battle.

Rhizome fragments would wash down the Rhymney River, colonizing riverbanks like unstoppable invaders. Knotweed would obstruct road visibility, claim car parks as its own, and tower over fences in private gardens. It was a relentless conqueror, claiming one plot only to resurface in the next. Bowes even discovered knotweed growing inside a building, where the plant had ingeniously navigated pipes and crevices in concrete to greet unsuspecting bathroom-goers.

But amidst the struggles, Bowes found solace in some areas that have remained knotweed-free for over 15 years. And with a hint of surrealism, he reflected on his never-ending game of knotweed whack-a-mole, admitting, "Honestly, when I started, I thought, 'Maybe a year of this, and then I'll move on to something else.'" Little did he know that knotweed had different plans, keeping him on his toes for years to come.


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