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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Government gives up fight to stop caterpillars that can trigger severe asthma attacks from invading Britain

By David Derbyshire

-Oak processionary moth is concentrated in London and could affect 2012 Olympics if trees suffer infestation

Pest: Ministers say there is no longer any point trying to eradicate the oak processionary moth, a toxic caterpillar whose hairs can trigger asthma attacks

The Government has abandoned its battle to stop an invasive and potentially deadly caterpillar from setting up home in the UK, it emerged yesterday.

After a futile five-year struggle, ministers say there is no longer any point trying to eradicate the oak processionary moth, a toxic pest whose hairs can trigger severe asthma attacks.

Instead, it will try to restrict the alien invader to its stronghold in London and the south-east.

The U-turn has angered wildlife experts who say the insect will pose a major public health menace.

The pest, whose nests have already trebled in the worst-affected areas in the south-east in recent years, will spread even more rapidly, they say.

There are even fears that the caterpillar could affect the Olympics in 2012 if east London oak trees suffer an infestation.

The moth, which devastates oak trees by stripping their leaves, first appeared in London in 2006 and has been spotted as far afield as Reading and Sheffield.

Each of its caterpillar is covered with 62,000 hairs that can provoke asthma attacks, allergic reactions, painful skin and throat rashes, running eyes, breathing problems, vomiting, dizziness and fever.

Earlier this month Forestry Commission - the Government department responsible for protection of Britain's forests and woodlands - abandoned its policy of attempting to eradicate the pest.

It says it now aims to 'contain' the caterpillar in the core outbreak zone - the west London boroughs of Ealing, Brent, Hounslow, Richmond-upon-Thames and Hammersmith & Fulham.

The Commission will no longer issue statutory notices requiring owners to have the nests and caterpillars removed from their trees.

It will now be up to local authorities and tree owners to manage the moth’s impact.

Council tree managers met last week to discuss the crisis, including the threat to the Olympics.

The Forestry Commission will no longer issue statutory notices requiring owners to have the nests and caterpillars removed from their trees

Dave Lofthouse, chairman of the London Tree Officers Association, branded the Commission’s move as 'a recipe for failure'.

He said: 'I suspect that if the Forestry Commission had the funding, then they would not be doing this.

'If you retreat in the area you are patrolling, it can only lead to a more rapid spread.'

The moths arrived in Britain on a batch of oaks shipped in from Holland and quickly became established in the South East.

The pest is so serious in Holland and Belgium that giant vacuums are deployed to suck thousands of nests from trees and burn them at 600°C, using incinerators.

The number of nests in the west London boroughs has rocketed from 700 in 2007 to 2,100 last year.

Mark Townsend, of contractor Gristwood & Toms, which manages trees for councils nationwide, said: 'With the Forestry Commission taking a step back, what happens when we are faced with a Netherlands-style outbreak?

'Tree officers will be the ones who have to deal with it but they won’t have any more resources.

'Yet the early years are the crucial ones. It will now follow an exponential curve. I would be surprised if there aren’t more outbreaks festering.'

Tim Rumball, editor of Amateur Gardening magazine, said: 'The oak processionary moth has the potential to be the most dangerous garden and countryside pest of modern times.

'Unless it is eradicated quickly, children and pets will not be able to play safely outdoors wherever oak trees are present.

'With thousands of foreign visitors and many of the Olympic competitors staying in and around the London area throughout the period of the games, there is a real threat that many could be seriously injured by contact with oak processionary moth caterpillars while travelling to and from their hotels and lodgings to the venues.'

He added: 'If ever there was a catastrophe waiting to happen, this is it.'

In a statement, the Commission said that its decision 'follows scientific advice that it is no longer practicable to eradicate the species from the core outbreak zone'.

Roddie Burgess, head of the Commission's plant health service, said: 'We fully understand that local people and organisations will be very disappointed that we are no longer pursuing a policy of eradicating oak processionary moth from west London.

'However, Ministers have accepted scientists' advice that it is no longer practicable to try to eradicate it from the area and have asked us to move to a policy of containment and management.

'The wisest use of the available resources is to continue to work towards keeping it contained at the lowest practicable level within the current core outbreak area and to prevent it from spreading outwards to the rest of the country.'



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