Something nasty in the woods

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The Independent Online
COW PARSLEY froths at the approaches to Wytham Woods near Oxford. Within their depths bluebells are still in bloom amid a tangle of creepers and dead wood, hosts to a myriad insect species.

A deer bolts across the path: the birdsong rises and dies away. These woods, if not Jurassic, are centuries old. For 200 years the fluctuations in their wildlife has been studied at Oxford University. They are a pulse point where a touch can be kept on the health of England's countryside.

No dog can enter here. Local people must apply for a special pass before they are admitted. But, 100 yards from the edge, the university and the Department of the Environment have permitted an experiment which some scientists believe poses a risk - perhaps a very small risk, but a risk - that an unseen intruder could enter Wytham Woods: a genetic virus the size of a speck of dust.

This genetically engineered scorpion-virus insecticide could, just conceivably, with bad luck, in the view of some - add in all the other caveats imaginable - spread to other caterpillars on which some bird species in Wytham Woods depend for food. Could bird droppings spread it further? Is that a risk it is wise to take?

Down in the White Hart in Wytham village there was not much concern. 'There's no cause to talk here about a few unpronounceable beasties,' said one man. 'There's more important things. What about the mess farmers leave on the road?'

Behind an ivy-wreathed wall a noticeboard talks of jumble sales. It carries two pieces of paper informing locals, as the law demands, about the planned experiment on a cabbage patch up the road and asks for comments.

It is, announces the Institute of Virology and Environmental Microbiology, a test of a viral insecticide which is, it says, specific for a particular species of caterpillar. The purpose is 'to look at the effect of the genetically modified virus on alternative hosts and its longer term survival'. Is such a notice enough to bring experiments of this sort under the protective spotlight of public scrutiny. Wytham is a small village. Its beautiful old abbey is divided into flats, many of them empty during the week. Some people saw there was a notice, but thought no more about it.

'To some degree I think people have some idea of what they're doing,' said Anthony Gresswell, a local resident. 'I vaguely remember the notice. I thought, hmm, looks at the cutting edge - but I'm not against it for that reason. You can't crusade about everything.'

On Thursday, someone had pinned up a newspaper clipping quoting some scientists who think the experiment carries a small, but potential risk, and Professor David Bishop, who is responsible for the experiment, who does not. At 9am it was on the board. By 4pm it had been removed. So much for the climate of free academic discussion.

Many of the houses in the village are rented from the university. The University Field Station lies near the cabbage patch, which is on university land. 'It's a university village. And the university does experiments. And that's it,' one resident said.

The notice about this experiment also appeared in a local paper, as the law demands. That Saturday George Smith, who lives two-and-a-half miles away, happened to see it.

Its message seemed contradictory. Could the viral insecticide have other host species or not? Dr Smith is a material scientist, a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, and the MD of a small company dealing in hi-tech scientific instruments. The notice gave three weeks in which to comment. He sent off to the address given for full information on the experiment. It took four weeks before the he received it. By that time the DoE had approved it.

'I was told that the rules say you must invite comments,' said Dr Smith, 'but they don't say what we should do when we get them.'

He sent the details to his colleagues in relevant specialisations. One of those who has expressed doubts is Steve Jones, former Reith Lecturer and Professor of Genetics at University College London, who believes there is a risk that vandals or birds could rip the fine netting on the fenced patch, letting the virus out.

It is a small site. On Thursday sheep were safely grazing around it in the sunlight. A resident - who did not want to be named because he is a tenant of the university - gazed at it with me. 'There's foxes here. And rats. They fenced the wood to keep the deer in, after farmers complained. But it didn't work.'

But the biggest hole visible near Wytham Woods is not going to be in the netting. It already gapes in the procedures meant to cover this area with the shield of public scrutiny. Professor Bishop may be right and his experiment safe. Perhaps he is about to deliver a risk- free, targeted insecticide to fight world hunger. But if public consultation is not just a farce, an intentional sop, the arguments on risk should have been publicly aired before permission was given.

The birds sing in Wytham Woods. The hawthorn is out. Field trials on this virus have already been carried out. There is just the faintest chance - if there is a risk - that it could already be out.