How the codling moth gave Victorians the pip

EDP writer Rex Hancy.

EDP writer Rex Hancy. - Credit: Archant

In The Countryside: Rex Hancy looks at how the dreaded codling moth was tackled in times gone by.

I do not for one minute believe the codling moth was more prevalent this year. It just so happens that more people have described to me the symptoms of the moth's attack on apples than usual. There is no doubt that this micro-moth with a wing-span of a mere two centimetres is a serious problem. Measures to protect the fruit have through the ages verged on the desperate but where it is common the moth still has the edge.

Control measures are possible but the timing has to be perfect. Even so, more than one recent work on garden pests end their comments on a despairing note. The suggestion is that however successful you may be on your own plot, moths will fly in from other gardens and indeed from the wild. Obviously, many growers do succeed in gathering healthy, grub-free apples or the shelves in the fruiterers' shops would have to be filled with other fruits.

When thinking about any of our spectacularly successful pest species I always look back to larger Victorian gardens to see what counter-measures were taken in the days when labour was cheap. It was realised that infested fruit fell before complete ripening so a common practice was pick them up as soon as possible. The more observant and knowledgeable noticed that the caterpillars wriggled out of the apples on their way to winter quarters immediately after the fall so the opportunity came and went very quickly.

Winter quarters consist of cracks and crevices in the bark of the trees so another angle of attack was to prevent them ascending the trunk. All sorts of materials were used to make impassable girdles round the trunks. Unlucky caterpillars became trapped in sticky substances or succumbed to any one of various poisons. Think of the work involved in girdling a whole orchard! Mixtures of tar and oil were sprayed on the trunks to kill off any caterpillars successfully running the gauntlet. In spite of all the efforts, the following year brought a repeat of the whole performance.

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The moth itself does not emerge till the following spring when it rests by day and flies by night to lay single eggs in the minute apples as they first form from the flower.

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