Antler moth threatens Cumbrian fell grazing

26 June 1998

Antler moth threatens Cumbrian fell grazing

By Jeremy Hunt

A VAST area of fell grazing in Cumbria is being destroyed by an unprecedented population explosion of antler moth caterpillars.

More than 16,000ha (40,000 acres) of grazing are under attack from the insects, which are eating grass down to the roots and killing huge swathes of essential summer sheep grazing, stretching for miles.

Over 30 farms with grazing on the Howgill Fells near Sedbergh are the worst affected, but the caterpillars are spreading north towards Tebay and east towards Dent.

Ewes and lambs turned on to the fells for the summer are now starting to move down to lower land as their grazing is destroyed. But farmers have also found caterpillars on lower ground.

Farmers fear their flocks will not return to the fell, where grass is contaminated and dying. The limited acreage of in-bye land is needed for silage and is insufficient to provide emergency grazing. Some farmers may be forced to wean lambs early and sell them to reduce numbers.

William Postlethwaite, of Crosedale Cottage, Howgill who has 300 sheep on the fell, says the grass is a seething mass of caterpillars. “I have never seen anything like it. Its like a horror movie. I have land up to 600m (2000ft) and its a writhing carpet of caterpillars. Huge areas are being destroyed and turning brown.”

As sheep move away from the land, hundreds of crows and seagulls are feeding on the insects, but are failing to have any impact on the outbreak. Mr Postlethwaite says some caterpillars occur every year, but no one can recall an outbreak on this scale.

“ADAS says there is nothing we can do to control them. There are two effective insecticides, but it would be impractical because the area is so large and the action would be challenged by environmentalists.”

ADAS has confirmed that the caterpillars are part of the life cycle of the antler moth cerapteryx graminis. ADAS entomologist Mike Lole says it could be several weeks before the situation improves.

“Over the next few weeks, the caterpillars will burrow into the soil and pupate. They will emerge as moths during July and through the summer and will drop their eggs in flight. Eggs will land on grass and hatch into caterpillars the following spring.

“It is a serious situation, but a population explosion such as this is often followed by a year where numbers are lower than normal,” said Mr Lole.

  • For this and other stories, see Farmers Weekly, 26 June-2 July, 1998

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