‘A world first’: Devon calls victory in 27-year conflict on termites | Devon

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‘A world first’: Devon calls victory in 27-year war on termites | Devon

In 1994, a bungalow owner in Devon called pest control to report that a mysterious “white ant” had been feeding through her conservatory. Investigations eventually revealed that the culprit was in fact a colony of millions of underground termites, the first and only colony ever recorded on British soil.

The call marked the beginning of a 27-year saga that has involved hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money and significant headaches for the property owner and her neighbors in Saunton on the north Devon coast.

Many experts thought Britain’s Termite Eradication Program (TEP) was doomed to fail. Once imported, usually in something as innocent as a wooden wine box or an antique pine wardrobe, the tenacious insects inevitably triumph and become endemic thanks to their superior burial and reproductive abilities.

But now human ingenuity and British blood spirit have prevailed in Devon. After no sign of termite activity was detected for the past 10 years, the Saunton termite colony has been officially declared dead by a panel of international experts, saving the nation from a future where homeowners will have to worry about termite infestations as well as wasp nests and rising damp.

A final field inspection in May found no evidence of termites in a zone 100 meters long and 30 meters deep, and the TEP is now in “shutdown mode,” said Dr. Ed Suttie, the termite terminator who has been involved with the TEP since, started in 1998 and has operated it since 2003. No other country has ever won the termite war, he said, “It’s a world first.”

There have been false dawns before in this clash of beasts. At the beginning of the new millennium, no termites were sighted for nine years. Then their bulging antennae were again sighted in the ground, leading to the eradication and surveillance program being repeatedly extended through this year.

The colony had settled beneath two neighboring bungalows, effectively doomed by the invaders. In 2012, one of the owners applied to demolish her property and start over, but after a two-year struggle, she was denied planning permission.

The matter was deemed so vital to national biosecurity that the final decision was made by then-township secretary Eric Pickles. He refused on the grounds that the demolition and construction work could pose a risk of the termites spreading to a larger area with “possible catastrophic economic, environmental and social consequences”.

A compromise was reached that allowed her to construct what Suttie says is “the only termite-proof building in Britain”. Burning down the infected buildings is not an option, he explained: “Termites didn’t really live in the house – the wood in it was just their food source. They live underground, often many meters below the surface.”

Suttie said both property owners have shown an “amazing collaboration” over the decades, not only prohibiting them from doing most home improvement jobs, but also prohibiting them from removing earth or wood from the site.

They also had to allow TEP officials to plant “wooden decoys” in their gardens – essentially wooden stakes made from old pine, the favorite food of termites, which they could monitor for munchies. Eradication of termites involved the targeted use of “insect growth regulators,” a type of hyper-smart insecticide that would prevent the termites from reaching adulthood and reproducing.

Had successive governments since 1998 not poured significant sums of public money into the effort, it could have been a very different story, Suttie said. Termites may have become endemic, eating through floorboards, door frames and beams throughout southern England, as well as in Australia, parts of North America and southern Europe.

The stakes are high: termites cause more than $5 billion (£3.8 billion) in property damage in the United States every year, according to the National Pest Management Association.

Although termites were first confirmed at Saunton in 1994, Suttie believes they may have been imported to the site as much as 70 years earlier: “Anecdotally, we’ve heard stories from gardeners relating to white ants and a greenhouse being replaced had to .”

Nick Harvey, who was MP for the local Liberal Democrats from 1992 to 2015, recalls the “great agony” of the bungalow owner who discovered the colony. His constituent believed a previous resident accidentally imported the termites into soil brought over some non-native plants from the Canary Islands, he said.

Damian McBride, a special adviser to shadow Secretary of State Emily Thornberry who drew attention to the termite war in a Twitter thread, said he thinks Suttie and others should be honored for their lackluster but essential public service.

“What’s the moral of the story?” he asked. “You can make up your own, but to me this is public service at its best – unseen, largely unknown and seldom announced – but delivered with selfless dedication year after year, simply because it would happen to the rest of us if it were.” it wouldn’t be like that.”

Engineers of Destruction: Termites vs. Cities

Termite workers and a soldier enjoy damaged wood. Photo: Nigel Cattlin/Alamy

In forests and grasslands of their native tropics, termites are considered “soil engineers” critical to maintaining soil structure and ecosystem balance, according to the BRE, which has run the state’s termite eradication program since 1998. But when imported into urban environments, they are considered pests due to their ability to severely damage wood in buildings.

Underground termites – the species that wreaked havoc in north Devon – are now endemic to southern Europe thanks to globalization and a warming climate. If you live in a termite-infested area in France, the law requires you to provide a termite-free certificate when selling a home, and all construction work must be certified termite-proof.

Much of the UK is too wet for an underground termite colony. But unfortunately for the Saunton bungalow owners, their properties were built on very light, sandy and well-drained soil among termite-loving maritime pines. The houses were also built with lots of pine wood, a treat for the greedy insects that can munch around unnoticed for months, digging out wood from the inside.

Sometimes confused with white ants, worker termites are typically 4–6 mm long, pale or whitish in color, have pearly antennae, and lack a “waist” (a narrowing of the first or second abdominal segment). A colony can form in the space of a matchbox, but can be much larger, as in the case of Devon, and consist of numerous “mud tubes” or tunnels connecting food sources and nesting sites.