Plague of locusts threatens Italian vineyards

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Freak swarms of locusts devouring vineyards in and around the northern Italian province of Alessandria, sometimes moving at speeds of up to 30mph, are threatening this year's production of a venerable wine.

The centre of the locust invasion is the town of Cerrina on the border between the provinces of Alessandria and Asti, the home of the famous Barbera label as well as sparkling Spumante wine.

The locusts, identified as a home-grown variety of insect, the Calliptamus italicus, have been wreaking havoc with agriculture throughout Piedmont. Huge swarms have also been seen flying around districts of Turin at speeds of up to 30mph.

Scientists have hastened to reassure Italians that the locusts are harmless to humans, but have sounded the alarm over the threat to the precious harvest of Barbera, popular across the country as an accompaniment to game dishes and spicy-sauced pastas.

"Above all the locusts devour the young vine shoots," said Fabrizio Iuli, who produces Barbera in the fertile Monferrato hills near Cerrina. "But now they have also started to attack the adult plants." Among those up in arms is Gad Lerner, a popular television anchorman who owns a large estate of vineyards at nearby Odalengo Grande.

"The locusts have become natives here," said Secondo Rabbione, the president of the local branch of Coldiretti, the Italian Farmers' Association. "This is the last thing we needed."

Small numbers of the locusts are normal in Italy during the summer months but the size of the swarms, evidently due to a lengthy drought, is unprecedented, according to Mino Tarrico, Piedmont's regional alderman for agriculture.

"We are hearing about exceptionally large swarms all over Piedmont. Unfortunately when the locusts are adult, nothing can stop them. Two months ago we asked the local administrations to intervene in time, but our alarm was not taken seriously enough."

In addition to the vineyards, the insects are landing on fields of green beans, courgettes, lettuces and animal forage as well as lawns, Mr Coldiretti said. Farmers say only hens, turkeys and pheasants can keep the locusts at bay.

Some farmers have resorted to bizarre methods to deal with the threat. Ivano Scarpino, Piedmont's head of agricultural sanitation services, told La Stampa he knew of "one man who, to chase away the locusts, clipped the wings of four crows, so that they would clean his courtyard, when a couple of turkeys would have been enough."

Many market gardeners have covered their fields with ultra-thin nets, said to be as delicate as a bride's veil. "Without hay and forage, cattle farmers will have to buy it themselves," said Gianluigi Pensati, a market gardener who grows clover. "I've never seen anything like this. The locusts are even eating peaches."

Signor Pensati has no doubt the locusts are linked to a global-warming effect. "It is man's fault, not the locusts', if there are so many of them," he said. "Drought and less severe winters favour the locusts' life cycle.

"The adult insects move very rapidly in swarms, even travelling at 20-30mph if the wind helps them," he added. "At this stage insecticides are useless. As soon as the locusts take fright they escape far away."

Pier Valentino Piva, the mayor of Cerrina, said his citizens were at their wits' end with locusts flying into cars and bags, entangling hair and finding their way into clothes. "There are thousands of them massed on the walls of our houses from morning to night. It seems as though here we are living through a scourge from the Bible."