Attack by rare pest damages wheat crop: Hot June weather blamed for plague of orange blossom midges. David Nicholson-Lord reports

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

While the nation was riveted by the sunniest and driest Wimbledon in 16 years, a tiny insect was slowly chomping through its supply of potential cucumber sandwiches.

Between 10 and 15 per cent of the lowland wheat-growing area has been damaged by the orange blossom midge, a rare pest not seen in such numbers in the UK for probably half a century. The reduction in wheat yields is estimated at between 2 and 5 per cent; on some farms it is up to 30 per cent.

Agricultural scientists are at a loss to explain the outbreak. However, the warm, dry weather during Wimbledon fortnight - the period at the end of June when the ears on the wheat begin to form - was crucial, enabling the midges to lay their eggs in the wheat kernels.

The midge, 2mm long, can lie in the soil in pupa form for up to 20 years; sightings of it are reported about every nine years. Warmer and wetter weather earlier in the season has been advanced as a reason why it has emerged in numbers not seen in some areas for up to a century.

The Ministry of Agriculture said it was 'just one of those things'. Alternative hypotheses link it with climate change caused by global warming - which has produced milder winters and more pests - and with the increase in agricultural 'set aside', land taken out of production which may act as a source of pests and crop disease.

Dr Mike Carver, director of the privately-run Arable Research Centres, said the outbreak was a mystery. 'Every agronomist will give you a very profound statement based on absolutely nothing. We were hoping for a damn good harvest before this happened. It has really taken everyone by surprise.'

Because the larva eats the wheat grain from the inside, it is not easily detectable. By the time it was spotted, in a swathe along the south and east coasts from Wiltshire to Yorkshire, it was too late for spraying.

The milling industry has warned that bread wheat supply could be tight this year. Production is estimated at 2.5 million tons, with demand between 2.5 and 3 million tons. According to the ministry and the National Farmers' Union, it is too early to judge the impact on bread prices.

(Photograph omitted)