Invasion of the Chinese tree killers: Asian beetle poses the biggest threat to woodlands since Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970s .
A Chinese beetle is threatening to wreak havoc on Britain’s trees on a scale not seen since the devastation of Dutch Elm Disease 40 years ago.
If unchecked, the Asian long-horn beetle threatens to lay waste to millions of poplar and willow trees as well as maple, sycamore, elm, horse chestnut, apple, pear and cherry species.
Government scientists have discovered the beetle breeding in Britain for the first time. They now fear young beetles will soon mature into adults and spread around the country.
Experts say a nightmare scenario could happen from May – and they are now in a race against time to prevent the spread of the beetle before then.
They are inspecting every tree within a mile radius of the outbreak, in Paddock Wood, Kent, using binoculars to scan the bark for tell-tale holes less than an inch in diameter in which beetles lay eggs.
Any trees found to be infested will be chopped down and incinerated before the beetles reach maturity.
So far three trees have tested positive. Results are awaited on a further ten. A pesticide can be used in the early stages of infestation, but experts have chosen not to use it because it is a less certain method than burning trees.
The danger is from the beetle’s larvae, which burrow for food through the living wood. Branches become brittle, then collapse, and eventually the tree dies.
Humans are not at risk, but the beetles should be handled carefully because they can nip skin. Woodland throughout the Home Counties and the South is most at risk from a wider outbreak.
But if it spreads unchecked then most of England and Wales and warmer coastal areas in Scotland could be affected. An alert has been issued by the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) and the Forestry Commission.
The outbreak is seen as the biggest threat to the country’s native trees since Dutch Elm Disease arrived in the late Sixties and killed more than 25 million elm trees in the Seventies.
The Asian long-horn beetle, a native of China and Korea, is thought to have arrived in Britain as a stow-away passenger in cargo crates shipped in from the Far East.
It has been seen in the country occasionally before, but this is the first time it has been found to be breeding. Scientists discovered the Paddock Wood infestation last month during an annual check.
Researchers were alarmed by suspicious marks on a poplar. Samples were taken, and DNA sequencing confirmed the identity of the larvae.
Peter Scotting, a FERA plant health inspector, said: ‘We have identified poplars and willows with infestation and are really concerned. Some of them are already dead, others don’t look too bad. We are keeping a very close eye indeed. We need to act fast before this pest gets a grip.’
Checks have been stepped up at British ports to ensure packaging on ships carrying Chinese goods is properly treated and fumigated.
The beetle was regularly picked up on wood-packaged imports until 2005, when trade rules made it compulsory to treat wood material to kill infestations and checks were reduced.
New restrictions may be introduced after an EU review of import controls, which is under way. In China the beetle has killed millions of poplars. Thousands of trees have died in the US, where £460 million has been spent on eradication.
Outbreaks have also affected Italy, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland.
Under threat: The beetle threatens to lay waste to millions of poplar and willow trees as well as maple, sycamore, elm, horse chestnut, apple, pear and cherry species