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Christopher Booker's Notebook
The Sunday Telegraph
28 September 2003, p. 16

For more than 800 years gardeners and landowners have known that the most efficient way to keep ponds, lakes and rivers free of harmful algae is to chuck in a pile of barley straw. This environmentally-friendly method of keeping fresh water clean, first acclaimed by a 12th-century bishop of Winchester, is today used by the Environment Agency in rivers, by water companies in reservoirs and by hundreds of thousands of gardeners.

Officials of the Health and Safety Executive, however, have ruled that since September 1 this is now illegal, under a European Union directive which requires all "biocidal products" to be registered and tested at a cost of nearly £200,000. In the case of barley straw, this will be impossible because, although it has been confirmed as wholly safe by years of research at the Centre for Aquatic Plant Management at Sonning-on-Thames, no one has been able to identify the "active ingredient" that makes it such an effective antidote to the algae which deprive fish and other creatures of oxygen.

One man on whom the HSE's ruling will weigh especially heavily is Tom Pain, a former naval engineer, whose company Green Ways, near Winchester, supplies 100,000 barley straw mats each year to garden centres all over Britain. Some years back, when Geoff Hamilton, on the programme Gardener's World, recommended that the best answer to pond weed was "to stuff the mother-in-law's old tights with a load of barley straw", Mr Pain sent him samples of his custom-made mats, which Mr Hamilton was happy to recommend on the programme as a neater answer to the problem.

Recently, however, Mr Pain learned that, according to the HSE, barley straw - which is only widely used for this purpose in Britain - would have to be approved under the EU's biocidal products directive 98/8. He was horrified to discover that this would cost £120,000 for two years research, plus up to £65,000 more for the European Commission to evaluate the results. And even then, since the exact nature of the chemical process involved is a mystery, he might well not get the approval required.

Even Mr Pain's Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten describes this threat to a wholly safe, environmentally-friendly product as "bureaucracy gone mad". Mr Pain's local HSE inspector uses barley straw in his own pond. The only possible consequence of banning barley straw would be to force the Environment Agency, water companies and pond owners to replace it with toxic chemicals, to achieve the same purpose less effectively and much more dangerously.

For the time being, Mr Pain continues to sell his mats as a general "pond cleaner", without reference to algae, in the hope that common sense for once will prevail.

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