Termite army establishes Devon bridgehead, and DoE declares war

  • @iburrell
NAPOLEON'S troops couldn't do it and neither could Hitler's, but Britain's shores have been invaded by millions of the most destructive soldiers known to man - termites.

The army of Reticulitermes flavipes marches on its stomach. It will dine on fungi, paper, cloth, leather, plastic piping and lead-sheathed telephone cable. But, most of all, the termite likes to devour wood. And with a single colony consisting of up to three million insects, they are capable of eating a house.

For years, governments have been fighting a rearguard action to protect Britain's trees, fence posts, garden sheds and kitchen tables from being gobbled up by a scourge which is dreaded in Africa and southern Europe and has spread to the north coast of France.

But three years ago pest controllers received the news they had feared; a wooden conservatory in North Devon had been consumed.

The housewife who had discovered the termites was told to keep silent while the Department of Environment set up a secret task force to destroy the invading colony.

The man they turned to was Tony Bravery, director of the Centre of Timber Technology Construction at the Building Research Station near Watford. Working with a timber treatment expert, Mr Bravery blitzed the termites with chemical weapons.

The insecticides should have had a devastating effect on the insect soldiers, which are armed only with mandibles and a squirt gun in their snouts which fires a repellant glandular secretion, mostly at enemy ants.

Dr Bravery, who managed to trace the termite infestation to a plant which had been brought in from eastern Europe, was confident that the British winter would kill off any insects that had escaped. Yet, termites are great survivors. Each colony contains a large number of winged reproductives capable of flying several hundred yards to establish new nests.

This spring the termites have reappeared, eating their way through a timber porch. Dr Bravery said: "It does not look like a big colony but we keep finding them. It is very worrying."

Among the nervous onlookers will be the timber merchants who had been celebrating Government plans for the building of four million new homes by the year 2016.

Experts attribute the termite's survival in Britain to climate change, which has seen cockroaches, deathwatch beetle and other pests move north.