Rare moth species could prevent the return of wheat disease

Conservation efforts to save one of Britain’s most endangered moth species – the Barberry Carpet moth, could help prevent the return of wheat stem rust disease, researchers have found.

Moth on finger

Wheat stem rust disease was thought to be eradicated in the UK until a single wheat plant bearing the disease was discovered in a field in Suffolk in 2013 – 60 years since the last outbreak was recorded.

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Although no further infections have been recorded in the UK since then, increased reports of wheat stem rust disease in Western Europe since 2013 is a concern to growers as most of the UK’s wheat species could be at risk of contracting the disease.

A dark green fritillary butterfly on a sandy path at Murlough Nature Reserve.

A new citizen science project led by the Barberry Rust Explorer (BarbRE) programme, is launching in Norfolk on 3rd April 2019, with the aim of seeing how the moth’s host plant common barberry can be managed to secure the future of the rare Barberry Carpet moth and prevent the resurgence of wheat stem rust disease in crops.

Researchers hope to gain better understanding of the potential disease threat and help protect our wheat crops, while finding ways to manage conservation of the threatened Barberry Carpet moth.

According to Dr Diane Saunders from the John Innes Centre, wheat stem rust has the potential to infect 80% of the current UK wheat lines.

Dr Saunders 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 bio-security. This knowledge may also suggest alternative methods of disease control.”

Dr Diane Saunders from the John Innes Centre – credit John Innes Centre
Dr Diane Saunders from the John Innes Centre – credit John Innes Centre

BarbRE is encouraging people interested in conservation and farming to use the iNaturalist app to report the location of common barberry bushes; these can then be checked by the BarbRE team for stem rust infection. This location information will directly inform the development of risk models, which will be invaluable if wheat stem rust re-emerges in the UK.

According to Mark Parsons from the Butterfly Conservation, BarbRE 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.”

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For more details about the BarbRE project, visit: barbre.co.uk.