Dog detectives deployed by Italy in battle against blight that is devastating olive trees

Aerial picture taken in 2019 near Racale in Puglia, shows two varieties of olive trees, some infected (L) with a disease called Xylella fastidiosa, a bacteria carried from tree to tree by a bug, and some resisting the infection. – AFP/Charles Onians

Italy is deploying new weapons in its battle against a pathogen that has wiped out millions of olive trees in the south of the country – and their names are Snoopy, Lulu and Ellis.

A team of dogs has been trained to sniff out Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterium transmitted by insects that has wiped out vast swathes of olive groves in Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot.

It is the first time that dogs have been used in the war on the disease, which has killed more than 20 million olive trees and cost around two billion euros of economic damage as well as the loss of 5,000 jobs.

The pathogen shows no signs of slowing down but it is hoped that the dogs will be able to detect newly-infected trees before obvious signs of the affliction become visible. The trees can then either be treated or cut down in an attempt to stop the virus spreading further.

The canine task force, a mixed bag of golden retrievers, bloodhounds, Belgian shepherds and English springer spaniels, started undergoing training in June.

They will also be deployed in ports, airports, garden centres and nurseries to try to sniff out any imported plants or soil that are infected with Xylella fastidiosa.

Farmers and olive growers protest in Rome, demanding that the government take action against the Xylella bacteria – Getty

The initiative is a collaboration between several organisations including Coldiretti, the national agricultural association, and CNR, the national research council. “The Xylella pathogen is an environmental disaster, a problem for everyone,” said Ettore Prandini, the president of Coldiretti.

He said EU rules governing the importing of plants, crops and soil were too lax and had led to an “invasion of alien species which are damaging to the cultivation of crops, fruit, vegetables and honey.”

It is thought the bacterium originally arrived in Italy in 2013 in a consignment of tropical plants that came from Costa Rica. It began infecting olive trees in the far south of Puglia and then spread north at an alarming rate, carried by an insect called the spittlebug. Around 40% of Puglia has been infected so far.

Dame Helen Mirren, who spends holidays in a converted farmhouse in Puglia, has spoken out about the damage done to the region’s distinctive park-like landscape. The Oscar-winning actor was recently made honorary ambassador of a university in the region.

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