Environment: Danger beetle sneaks in

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A highly destructive pest of commercial timber woodlands has been imported into Britain using deception. Oliver Tickell reports on a beetle's threat to our forestry plantations.

A chance inspection at Dover docks has led to the discovery of Britain's worst ever infestation of spruce bark beetles.

''This is more than enough to start an outbreak in our woodlands,'' said Roddy Burgess, head of the Forestry Commission's plant health division.

The commission got on the beetle trail when inspecting a 20-tonne shipment of wood from the Czech Republic. The wood concealed within the packs still had its bark on and was riddled with spruce bark beetles. The inspector noticed the rough-sawn wood had been misdeclared to customs as "planed timber", thus escaping the usual plant health inspection, as spruce bark beetles live only under the bark, not in the wood.

The commission then traced five similar shipments to the West London Timber Company's yard in Woking, Surrey. On removing a piece of bark at random, it found 19 spruce bark beetles.

Mr Burgess said: ''This is a straight case of deception. The timber was deliberately assembled so as to conceal the horrors inside ... It was only through sheer luck that this came to light.''

The beetle is a major cause of tree death in Continental Europe, though British forests have so far escaped its ravages. But in August the Forestry Commission found beetles near British-grown logs at a paper mill in north Wales, suggesting that they might have established a British colony. Mr Burgess says it is unlikely that the north Wales and Woking incidents are connected.

The commission is now inspecting all timber imports from the Czech Republic and is installing beetle traps, using a powerful sex hormone attractant, in the Woking area to see whether any beetles have escaped.