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Battle of the bugs: a nightmare in the veg patch

Friday 08 February 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, whose allotment has been under water since Christmas, bemoans the impending arrival of yet another foreign pest in the veg patch: the pretty but lethal harlequin ladybird

TOMORROW, I shall wade into the middle of my allotment to cut two, or perhaps even three, red cabbages, depending whether their hearts are the size of tennis or golf balls. The cause of these pygmy brassicas: rabbit attack last autumn.

I suppose every gardener has his or her Public Enemy No 1. Mine happens to be furry mammals which constantly besiege my close-mesh wire border fences and can wipe out a whole row of leafy veg in one night should they reverse the Great Escape to tunnel in.

ladybird causes problems

This is a constant battle and for most of last summer, the wire won. But as winter was about to fall, one little urchin squeezed through whilst I was away on a fishing holiday and - bang - my baby red cabbages and purple sprouting broccoli were chewed down to the soil.

With nothing else to plant at that time of the year, I left them in to see if they might recover. The red cabbages did - to grow up as dwarves. As yet, there is no sign of a sprout on the broccoli. But then, the whole plot has been more or less under water since before Christmas and I am considering future crops of water cress or - if the climate does get warmer - rice!

Along with the rabbits, and the mice which dig up one out of every two beans or peas I plant as seed, I also have all the other pests: slugs and snails, weevils, aphids black and green, white fly and more varieties of weed than you can shake a hoe at: couch grass, dandelions, thistles, nettles, red leg, docks and several more which I can't even identify.

Now this is bad enough, about average I suppose for a veg path in the Yorkshire Dales, but I read this week that another horror is on its way and one which, say the scientists, will rob me of one of the few friends and allies that Old Ma Nature has provided: the native English ladybird.

Now it is not news that England has been invaded by the harlequin ladybird, which originated in Asia and has been working its way north across Europe for years. What is new is that scientists this week announced that it had become the second most destructive garden pest in the South East after slugs and snails.

What's more, it has already been found in Scotland and Northern Ireland - so it is undoubtedly already here in Yorkshire

What's more, it has already been found in Scotland and Northern Ireland - so it is undoubtedly already here in Yorkshire. Bigger and much more aggressive than the native species (just like the grey squirrel and the signal crayfish, two other unwelcome invaders) the harlequin eats native ladybirds and other species like lacewings which are our major predators on aphids.

And that threatens dozens of plants like the broad beans I am about to plant out, which in a few weeks time will be in flower, the first vegetables of spring and an absolute feast for blackfly. For years, I have collected ladybirds from anywhere I see them to put on my broad beans. Will they be around to come to my rescue this spring?

Scientists are very keen to track the advance of the harlequin ladybird which, although bigger than native species comes in a large variety of different colours and spots. Keen gardeners are being asked to keep their eyes open this coming spring (if, of course, it comes) and report to a team of experts set up by Cambridge University, Defra and other research bodies.

There is a website to receive reports which also shows a list of images to help identification. This is important so please help: www.harlequin-survey.org/default.htm

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