By Evie Andreou
SHEETS of metal to deter rats from chomping through carob tree branches and using hormones to keep killer moths from laying their eggs on vines are just two of the ingenious methods employed by the Agrolife project which aim to discourage farmers from using pesticides and poisons on their crops.
The results, so far, have been very encouraging.
Some of the methods introduced by the three-year project are a return to traditional methods of pest control employed by farmers generations ago, others are new.
The Agrolife project, implemented by Terra Cypria non-governmental organisation, the agriculture ministry’s department of environment, the Cyprus University of Technology (CUT) and the Open University of Cyprus, aims to sustain traditional methods of low-input farming in supporting biodiversity and ecosystem services while at the same time maintaining national and European standards
The group is focusing their experiments on the traditional vineyards in the area of Kapilio and the carob trees in Anogyra village, both in the Limassol district.
“We chose those two cultivations because they are historic, records of vine growing in Cyprus go back at least two to three millennia… and carob was considered as ‘the black gold of Cyprus’ since it was very important for the local economy as the island was making huge exports,” said Menelaos Stavrinides, assistant professor at CUT and national coordinator of the Agrolife project which is co-funded by the EU’s LIFE+ programme.
Earlier in the year, Agrolife researchers visited the Anogyra and Kapilio-Lania villages to meet the farmers and learn about their agriculture methods and investigate the impact of those agricultural practices on the biodiversity of the region.
“As regards the vineyards, farmers spray pesticide several times a year to fight their crop’s number one enemy, the European grapevine moth, Lobesia botrana, which lays its eggs on grapes,” said Savvas Zotos, Agrolife project manager. The larvae feed on the flowers and fruit of grape, thus destroying crops.
“We help them have a better quality product pesticide-free, by introducing the mating disruption technology. We installed pheromone releasing devices in the vines; the pheromone confuses the male moth from finding the female, thus preventing them from reproducing so the females do not lay their eggs on the grapes,” Zotos said.
He added that this method is not expensive and needs to be applied twice per year whereas pesticide needs to be sprayed several times a year.
“We want to show farmers that this method has results and it is a way to convince the government to implement such methods which are effective both on production and the protection of wildlife, since pesticides affect birds and insects as well,” said Zotos.
Vineyards are also home to several species of birds and insects, Stavrinides said, so part of the project is to re-introduce indigenous species of shrubs and flowering plants that attract wild bees and butterflies as well as insects that fight the grapevine moth.
“In the past, growers used to remove them, but they are important for the survival of birds for nesting and feeding,” Stavrinides said.
But the Agrolife team are not just teachers. They have also learnt a lot by observing traditional methods of pest control. For example, they have been inspired to utilise a technique seen elsewhere to protect carob trees in Anogyra from mice, by placing metal shields on the trunks of the trees which prevents access to the foliage and branches.
“The metal shields keep rats from climbing up to the branches, and it is a technique we actually saw in other villages of Cyprus near Polis and we thought of introducing it to the villages we work in,” said Lefkios Sergides, deputy director of EU policy coordinator at Terra Cypria.
Rats and mice are considered as the biggest threat to carob production as they feed on tree branches, which causes branches to dry out and production to fall, but Sergides said they also threaten the indigenous beetle, propomacrus cypriacus, which can be found only in Cyprus, and live on carob trees.
The beetle’s population, which is listed as “critically endangered” according to the EU regional assessment, is decreasing as it is entirely dependent on veteran trees, where it inhabits decaying heartwood.
Following the same chemical-free philosophy, they installed in carob trees eight nests of barn owls, Tyto alba, to manage rat populations naturally.
“In the past, people were cultivating the land, Anogyra was a populous village and carobs were widely harvested so there was not an intense problem with rats, but the last 20 to 30 years, because the majority of fields are not cultivated anymore, the population of rats has increased dramatically,” Zotos said.
Barn owls are the rats’ natural enemy and they will do a much better job than pesticides, since a pair of barn owls is estimated to consume over four to five thousand rodents per year, whereas poison kills birds and insects as well. To the same end, they are also monitoring black snake populations in the carob groves and the vineyards.
Conservationists expect that the nests would also help increase the owl population.
Have the locals welcomed the new – and old – techniques?
“There are people who are excited and facilitate the project but there are also concerns mainly about production since they fear that if the experiment on vineyards fails, then it will impact production, which farmers rely on,” Zotos said.
To allay their fears, Stavrinides said, a team from CUT is monitoring weekly the populations of the grapevine moth and pledged to use non toxic insecticide – which is not harmful to human health – in the case pheromones are not effective.
“It is early for results, since we started four to five months ago, but in comparison to other vineyards where the method was not applied, we are seeing encouraging results,” Stavrinides said.