How has this tiny rare moth created a conservation conundrum?
- Credit: Ian Hughes, Butterfly Conservation
Scientists have asked the public to help solve a conservation conundrum – how to save a rare moth without opening the door to a devastating crop disease.
The barberry carpet moth is one of the species most at risk of extinction in this country. But its main habitat, the common barberry shrub, can be a breeding ground for wheat stem rust, a disease with the potential to infect 80pc of the UK's wheat lines.
Norwich-based researchers said the fungal disease was thought to have been eradicated until 2013, when it was discovered on a single wheat plant in a field in Suffolk – the first sighting for 60 years.
Although no further infections have been recorded in the UK, the growth of wheat stem rust disease in western Europe since 2013 has sparked concern that it could re-establish itself in the cereal-farming heartlands of East Anglia.
So a citizen science project called Barberry Rust Explorer (BarbRE) will be launched at Norwich Research Park to learn how common barberry can be managed to secure the moth's future – while also investigating the stem rust pathogen to protect cereal crops from future outbreaks.
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Dr Diane Saunders from the John Innes Centre said: 'Barberry helps the overwintering cycle for wheat stem rust. At the end of the crop season, stem rust can produce hardy teliospores that germinate in the spring and infect barberry. The barberry bush acts as a seasonal bridge and source of inoculum. As a result, the shrub was largely removed from hedgerows and this was thought to have broken the disease cycle.
'Understanding how rust strains diversify and being able to accurately identify the cereal-infecting forms is vital for future biosecurity. This knowledge may also suggest alternative methods of disease control.'
READ MORE: Scientists' call to arms after deadly crop disease found in East Anglia for first time in 60 yearsBarbRE will encourage anyone interested in conservation and farming to use the iNaturalist app to report the location of common barberry bushes, which can then be checked by the BarbRE team for stem rust infection. This location information will directly inform the development of risk models, which could be a valuable tool if wheat stem rust re-emerges in the UK.
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Mark Parsons of Butterfly Conservation said the project is a good model for how volunteers, conservationists, scientists and farmers can work together to find solutions to environmental issues.
He said: 'Common barberry still occurs widely in the countryside and, despite this, there have been no wheat rust issues in recent times.
'However, while the barberry carpet moth is an endangered species, restricted to just a handful of sites in this country, we are still concerned about the potential risk from stem rust and the impact it could have on food security.
'By working together, we can reach a consensus on the best way to manage this complex issue and maintain part of our natural heritage, whilst also reducing any possible threat from stem rust.'
• More details about the BarbRE project – and the launch meeting at 6.30pm on April 3 at the John Innes Conference Centre, Norwich Research Park – can be found at the BarbRE website.