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Summer onslaught of insects

By: MARGARET BROWN

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I WILL remember 2007 for many reasons, one of which is an onslaught by thousands of ants. Day in and day out, like the veins on an elderly hand spreading from the timbered ceiling of our kitchen to the pale floor tiles, they walk four abreast while making room for those returning and occasionally touching antennae for information.

They have been foraging among my grubby cupboards where sugar grains, rings of jam and other sweet things have left their mark. Cups of tea sit cold and untouched while the Boss and I empty whichever store is currently under attack. It is a highly trained army of clones that ransacks one shelf after another, working round the walls from left to right with reinforcements arriving as troops return to the nest like supermarket escalators in the rush hour.

Having attacked them with spray, located their underground cities and doused those with unspeakable chemicals, we know that this is not the end of the war. On the plus side, all my cupboards are now clean and out of date goodies consigned to the bin.

With indoor temperatures ranging between 28˚C and 32˚C insects in general are having a ball in our house and geckos have multiplied in proportion to this bonanza. Several of the geckos’ newly hatched young have lingered too long and have been squashed flat between doors and jambs as they wait for insects to walk their way. Exquisite replicas of their parents, these tiny creatures with twinkling eyes and darting tongues end up as flat as pressed flowers in a bible. Designed with infinite care by a supreme creator or evolved by natural selection over millennia, according to Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, or perhaps a combination of both, to kill one is distressing.

And yet, because they deliver a nasty sting, I destroy wasps and biting insects without a qualm but not bees, because they are the honey gatherers. While working in my office shed, away from distractions, the other afternoon, I suddenly saw a cloud of European Paper Wasps hatch out behind the window fly netting, newly born and full of venom.

One of last year’s females had made a nest of octagonal cells, each one containing an egg. The whole construction was like a mushroom attached to the wooden frame by a fragile stalk. One squirt of insecticide and 25 lay dead — so elegant and deadly.

Mass slaughter

Sudden death is part of life and in the Third World where starvation, thirst and internecine wars carry off uncounted thousands every year. Here in western countries, it is not often mentioned in polite society, which makes it all the more shocking when we hear of shootings, stabbings and lives lost through violent crime.

For the highly urbanised population of Britain, another case of Foot and Mouth Disease and the mass slaughter of healthy farm animals are just something shown on television news. Their deaths are of little consequence until home killed meat is missing from the supermarket shelves. Beleaguered farmers see it as another nail in the coffin of British agriculture: their investment of money, time and skill gone up in smoke and cherished blood lines lost for ever.

The argument against vaccination of cloven hoofed ungulates against the disease has a hollow ring about it, Intervet having manufactured vaccines specific to each variation of the virus and these already in use in other countries. Against this, there is the threat of a six-month ban, which would be put on the export of vaccinated animals and it is thought necessary for all livestock liable to infection to be vaccinated every six months.

After the outbreak of 2001 that crippled farming, drove many to leave the industry and some to suicide, it is good to have Gordon Brown dealing hands on with the present crisis as if he knew something about agriculture. His early intervention and rapid lifting of restrictions may pay off and both the industry and Gordon’s election prospects will benefit.

Dig for victory

As an agricultural student in 1946, part of my college training required that I work on a dairy farm for a year prior to qualifying at Reading University. Because my home had moved to Devon, I found a place there with a herd of Guernsey Cattle. The farmer had seen his previous animals, including a flock of sheep, slaughtered during the last outbreak of Foot and Mouth. He was aged beyond his years yet found the courage to begin all over again and his son, equally dedicated to the land, inherited everything.

A few years later, he was served a compulsory purchase order for the holding as Bideford Town Council wanted it for a housing estate. His appeal failed, and live and dead stock were auctioned off and the young farmer, his wife and two Border Collies went to live in a house in the suburbs. The dogs barked because they were no longer free and working, the town dwellers complained and that was the end of two healthy working animals.

Having experienced food shortages, food rationing and a nationwide Dig for Victory campaign during WWII that turned flower gardens into vegetable patches, back yards into chicken runs and gave farms and labourers the respect they deserved, what now will it take to open the minds and eyes of urban Britain to the parlous state of its agriculture?