A village in gloom after saboteurs destroy blooms for national flower competition

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Jason Boom first noticed the damage during an evening tour of the scarlet-red begonias he had grown from bulbs and planted out near the bridge over the river Ludd, in the picturesque West Yorkshire village of Luddenden. The half-dozen plants, set amid green foliage, looked decidedly unwell and some sodium chlorate crystals scattered among them were a clue to deliberate sabotage.

Mr Boom replaced the flowers with some spares and put the attack down to experience - until other collections of plants lovingly nurtured for the village's debut in next week's Britain in Bloom competition fell foul of the same mystery attacker. Hardy geraniums planted out at "Brigitte's Garden" (a public picnic space in the village) suddenly started to wilt, having been sprayed with some kind of pesticide, and hanging baskets at the village's Lord Nelson pub also began withering and smelling rather unusual.

The timing seemed suspicious, coinciding as it did with the visit of two Britain in Bloom judges to Luddenden, to see if the place could trump its Village of the Year success in last year's Yorkshire in Bloom competition by carrying off a national crown. The judges were being driven through the village when the last piece of destruction - to an expensive arrangement of African marigolds, perennial violas and molinia grasses paid for through a local barbecue - was spotted.

"We actually think the saboteurs came out to see the effects of their work on the day the judges were here and decided to have another ago," said Mr Boom yesterday. "You would have thought people had better things to do with their time."

It is unclear whether competitive jealousy lies behind the nine individual acts of sabotage in the village, though Luddenden's opponents in the village's Britain in Bloom category - Maughold on the Isle of Man; Heysham, Lancashire; Coniston in Cumbria; Sark, one of the Channel Islands; and Edzell in Angus, Scotland - have no knowledge of such activity.

It is certainly not the first time that poisoners have been at work when the Britain in Bloom competition hots up. A £10,000 display of petunias, geraniums and begonias put forward by Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire, wilted and died two years ago, after being poisoned with weedkiller. Police were contacted and tests were carried out to determine whether a water bowser used by a local farmer had been spiked.

There is a sudden abundance of amateur sleuths among Luddenden's 900 population, according to Mr Boom. "Whether it's someone in the village, we are not going to guess," he said. "The police came to see us last night and said we need a rock solid sighting before they can do anything. It's no coincidence that all the places attacked were out of sight of the general public."

The Royal Horticultural Society, which runs the competition, said: "This is devastating to all of those in Luddenden who have worked so hard throughout the year," said Jim Buttress, chair of the judges. "Floral features provide colour and brightness in people's lives and it is terrible that a minority would want to destroy them."

Mr Boom has been assured that floral displays account for only 30 per cent of the overall marks, but insists the village does not want a "sympathy vote" when the 60 UK finalists discover their fate next Friday.

To avoid further misfortune, he and others may be wise to consider a novel approach to Britain in Bloom tried by the nearby town of Otley a few years ago. Fearing a shortage of water, locals entered silk flowers - a tactic accepted by the judges because of the town's "exceptional circumstances".

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