A landlord’s guide to the Weeds Act

As any gardener knows, controlling what grows on your land isn’t as easy as just planting the things you want. Weeds have all kinds of ways of spreading into places they’re not supposed to, and many of them throw out so many seeds that they’ll spring out of the ground almost as fast as you can pull them up. A wise soul once said that ‘a weed is just a plant in the wrong place’, but for a small number of plants, everywhere is the wrong place, and that’s where the Weeds Act 1959 comes in.

What’s the point of the Weeds Act?

The Weeds Act 1959 aims to control the spread of a small number of especially pernicious weeds. In essence, it allows inspectors from DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) to carry out inspections on private property, and to serve notices forcing landowners to control certain weeds on their land. If you don’t comply, you can be liable for stiff fines.

It’s worth mentioning that the focus of the act is on preventing the spread of weeds as far as you can, rather than stamping them out altogether – which is a nigh-on impossible task.  

What species are involved?

There are five species of weeds on the Government’s hit-list. Those are spear thistle; creeping or field thistle; curled dock; broad-leaved dock and ragwort. What these weeds all have in common is that they can have a particularly devastating effect on agriculture and food production.

Undoubtedly the most notorious is ragwort. Chances are you’ve almost certainly seen its pretty yellow flowers growing in grass verges or in the corner of someone’s garden, but what you might not have realised is that it’s hugely toxic to livestock. Sheep have to eat quite a bit of it to get sick, but even a relatively small amount can be fatal to most other livestock species. In an era where many cattle and pigs are kept largely indoors, ragwort’s less of a problem for farmers than it was in 1959, but horse owners are petrified of the stuff.

How likely is it that it’ll be a problem for me?

Obviously it’s very difficult to control what’s growing in the garden of a property you rent out, but fortunately the odd clump of ragwort or whatever growing in the corner of a suburban yard is unlikely to cause anyone any problems. DEFRA only has limited resources at its disposal, and its powers will be focused on preventing the spread of weeds in rural areas, where there’s a higher risk to food production.

If you do happen to rent out a property backing onto farmland, there’s a small chance you might fall foul of inspectors if your tenants really aren’t controlling the weeds in their garden, so some decent clauses in the tenancy agreement about keeping the garden in good order are essential.

I’ve heard about Japanese knotweed – why isn’t that mentioned?

Japanese knotweed is an ornamental thing – a sort of cross between bamboo and rhubarb – that British gardeners loved to plant in their gardens in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That was before they realised how fast it grew and how difficult it was to stamp out. Now the country’s riddled with it, and vast amounts of money are spent removing it every year. People have reported being unable to sell properties with knotweed present, and even having mortgage applications turned down if the lender’s discovered there was knotweed in the garden of their prospective home.

All the same, Japanese knotweed is not a weed under the Weeds Act 1959. It’s an invasive species, which is something different.

Invasive species

The Weeds Act is all about controlling weeds that affect food production, but there are lots of species that – while they’re not of particular concern to farmers – can out-compete native species and have a huge impact on our biodiversity. These are controlled through the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

As per the act, you can grow these species in your own garden if you’re careful, but you’re not allowed to plant them in the wild or allow them to spread outside of your own property. Japanese knotweed is the best known of these invasive species, but others include Himalayan balsam and giant hogweed (which not only looks like something out of Jurassic Park, but can also give you chemical burns).