How Natural Resources Wales uses environmentally friendly nematodes to combat an insidious pest

In the majestic forests of Wales, an army of microscopic worms is engaged in a battle to save the trees from a very determined pest.

It is all part of a master plan by Natural Resources Wales to find non-chemical solutions to solve its pest problems.

Despite its name, the large pine weevil (Hylobius abietis), also enjoys tucking into Sitka spruce, Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock and many other coniferous and deciduous species.

It lays  eggs in or close to  the stumps and roots of felled trees. At this stage of the lifecycle, no harm is caused to any trees. But watch out for the adult pine weevil, when it emerges from pupation: it walks or flies to the nearest living trees to feed – and has a particular liking for the young saplings planted to replace the recently felled areas of forest.

A pine weevil can kill a young tree quite easily by simply nibbling all the way around the trunk. The pest can destroy an average of 50 per cent of the young conifer trees on a restocked site if they are left unprotected. In worst-case scenarios, it could destroy all of them. 

The threat to the UK’s softwood timber-growing industry is substantial, amounting  to millions of pounds.

Now here come the battle-ready worms.

Nematodes have been used for over fifteen years in Welsh forests, Natural Resources Wales applies a mixture of water and nematodes onto around 200 hectares of freshly felled areas each year prior to saplings being planted. Two hundred hectares equates to protection for over 500,000 newly planted trees.

The watery mix is delivered via a Forwarder – a large forestry machine, specially adapted for the task and fitted with a large tank and  hoses.

Nematodes are naturally occurring microscopic worms, present in the soil. These worm-like micro-organisms are typically less than 2mm in length, each species has its own specific prey, meaning it will target only that particular pest. Nematodes attack the pest by entering natural body openings, releasing bacteria which aids them in consuming it. The nematodes then reproduce inside the dead pest and release a new generation of hungry nematodes, which disperse and search for further prey.

At Littlehampton in Sussex BASF runs the UK’s only nematode production plant. Using giant fermenters, the company has spent the last twenty-five years growing many trillions of nematodes of several different species to target slugs, ants, leatherjackets, chafer grubs and, of course, pine weevils under its Nemasys brand.

In fact, nearly half of the UK’s 240,000 square kilometres has been sprayed with some form of this entirely organic nematode pest control: in back gardens, commercial greenhouses and even, as in Wales, extensive areas of forest.*

Once sprayed with nematodes, the forest areas are re planted with young trees.

Bruce Theobald from Natural Resources Wales said: “Wales is an incredibly diverse country with a mix of mountainous terrain, lush soils, boggy areas and everything in between.  In line with our chemical reduction policy, nematodes offer a straightforward solution which works across a wide range of terrain types which can be accessed and applied by machine at the pre planting stage.  This fits perfectly  with our reduced use of pesticides and ever increasing environmental constraints.  The use of Nematodes, help us to reduce pine weevil populations with the added benefit of being  chemical-free, with no risk to visitors or wildlife.”

Anthony O’Hare from BASF said: “This is a perfect example of the huge environmental benefits that nematodes bring to pest control.  They are naturally occurring species and when their food source, in this case pine weevils, is exhausted, the additional population created by the use of the Nemasys product returns back to its pre-treatment level.  If they find their way into water courses there is no environmental damage as they do not survive.  Nematodes are one of nature’s ways of protecting itself.”

  • NRW manages 126,000 hectares of forests and woodland across Wales on behalf of the Welsh Government – that’s six percent of the country’s total land area – and around 40 percent of Wales’ forest.
  • Figure from BASF, based on the amount of Nemasys product it has produced in the last 25 years at its Littlehampton production plant.
  • BASF has the largest specialist nematode growing facility in the EU – and the only one in Britain – growing trillions of beneficial nematodes for use in their Nemasys range of pest controls.
  • Recently, BASF created ‘virtual tour’ videos designed to reveal the wonderful world of nematodes. Taken inside its high-tech facility in Sussex, the three videos entitled, ‘How do Nematodes work?’, ‘The BASF Factory Tour’, and ‘Why Choose Nemasys and Nemaslug’ can be viewed below:

You can follow Nemasys on Twitter @BASF_Nemasys_UK and find them on Facebook by searching for @BASF.Nemasys.UK

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