Traditional autumn sport in peril as pests attack conkers

Conker crisis as blight and moths destroy trees

29th September 2006

Horse chestnuts - or "conkers" as the British, and one or two former British colonies, affectionately know them as. They have been loved by generations of British schoolboys as they are used to play a game called conkers. But this traditional, British autumn sport is under threat by pests and diseases.

For years, it has been a favourite playground game, requiring skill, cunning, and, above all, a plentiful supply of conkers.

But this autumn the sport is under threat from a string of hungry pests and deadly diseases.

The spread of a grisly disease known as bleeding canker and a midge-sized moth with a voracious appetite could make this year the worst ever for conkers.

Up to 50,000 of the country's horse chestnut trees - one tenth of the national stock - has already been infected by bleeding canker - and experts are at a loss how to stop its spread.

The disease causes black gum to ooze from weeping sores in the bark. If the ulcers encircle the trunk, the result is rapid death.

In other cases, the tree is weakened so much that it has to be felled for safety reasons.

Until recently, rates of the disease, caused by two fungi, were low. But around five years ago, the disease started to take hold around the UK, and no one knows why.

Tests show the culprit is not the fungi that has caused a problem in the past, and until the predator is identified, there is no treatment or cure.

Our horse chestnuts are also under attack by the grubs of a foreign moth.

These devour its leaves, causing them to turn brown and fall off earlier than usual - and can lead to the trees producing fewer, and smaller conkers.

First spotted in the UK in a London back garden four years ago, the leaf miner moth, or Cameraria ohridella, has spread its wings across the southern half of England.

A Forestry Commission spokesman said: "The first report was in Wimbledon in July 2002.

"Since then it has spread throughout South-East England, from Margate and Folkestone in the east, to places as far west as Oxford and Bournemouth, and as far north as Norfolk and the Midlands."

There as even been an outbreak in Newport, Wales - thought to be caused by leaf miners who hitched a ride in a passing car.

In the grounds of London's Alexandra Palace, it looks as if autumn has come early.

There, horse chestnut leaves blighted by the leaf miner moth have turned golden brown and are growing sparser by the day.

The destruction is caused by the larvae - laid as eggs inside the leaves - munching or 'mining' their way to the outside.

With a single leaf holding up to 700 eggs, the leaves quickly turn brown and can be shed as early as August.

First seen in Macedonia in the 1970s, though it may have originated in Asia, the leaf miner moth has now spread across much of Europe.

Experts believe it is inevitable the moth, aided by gusts of wind and passing motorists, will eventually become widespread across the whole of the UK.

With no natural predator, its control is limited. There are also fears that infestation with the moth may speed up the death of trees already struggling to fight off canker.

While gardeners can keep the grubs at bay by sweeping up leaves and composting or burning them, such techniques are less practical in larger areas such as parks and woodland.

If the twin-pronged attack were not enough, horse chestnut trees are also under siege from a third pest - a fungus which causes yellow-bordered brown blotches on the leaves.

Last night, the Forestry Commission urged gardeners not to panic if they see their prize horse chestnut tree ailing.

While the canker may be fatal, moth infection and leaf blotch are often not as bad as they look, and expert opinion should be sought before trees are felled.

Despite the spread of disease, this year's World Conker Championships, held annually in Northamptonshire, will go ahead as planned.
Organisers have already collected more than half of the 2,000 conkers needed for the October 8 contest.
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The game of Conkers

Conker is the name used in Britain (external - login to view), Ireland (external - login to view) and some former British colonies (external - login to view) for the nuts (external - login to view) of the Common Horse-chestnut (external - login to view) tree, when used in a game traditionally played by children, Conkers. The name comes from the nineteenth-century dialectal word conker meaning snail-shell (related to French conque meaning a conch), as the game was originally played using snail shells. The name may also be influenced by the verb conquer, as the game was also called conquerors. Conkers are also known regionally as "obblyonkers" or "cheggies".

Rules of the game

Children tie string to the "conkers" (horse chestnuts) and hit each other's conker with their conker in turn. To score points, you have to smash your opponent's conker into pieces.
  1. Take a large, hard conker and drill a hole through it using a nail, gimlet (external - login to view), or small screwdriver. (This may be done by an adult on behalf of the contestant.) Thread a piece of string through it about 25 cm long. Often a shoelace (external - login to view) is used. Tie a large knot at one or both ends of the string, so that the conker will not slide off when swung hard.
  2. Find an opponent. It is to your advantage if you can find an opponent with a conker smaller and softer than yours.
  3. Take it in turns to hit each other's conker using your own. To do this one player lets the conker dangle on the full length of the string while the other player hits. To hit, hold the string in one hand with the conker held above it in the other hand, then swipe at the opponent's conker, letting go of your own nut but keeping hold of the string.
  • A new conker is a none-er meaning that it has conquered none yet.
  • If you manage to smash your opponent's conker to pieces, so that it comes off the string, your conker gets the score that your opponent's conker had, plus one for beating the opponent's conker itself. So for example, if two none-ers play, the surviving conker will become a one-er. But if a two-er plays a three-er, the surviving conker will become a six-er.
  • This scoring system is arguably not particularly fair, but it has the property that in a competition where n new conkers compete until only one survives, the surviving conker will be an (n-1)-er regardless of the sequence of games. Familiarity with the game will make this scoring system seem more justifiable, as some conkers seem to lead charmed lives, while others are just extraordinarily tough.

A variation of rule 3 above is as follows: A player is allowed to keep taking shots at the opponent's conker until they miss. When the player misses, the roles swap. If a player just slices the opponent's conker (ie. does not get a clean hit, often because wind causes the opponent's conker to sway), then both players quickly shout "tips" and the one who in the opinion of onlookers shouted it first, gets to take shots.
A further variation adds that if a player should let go of the string when the hit occurs, which often results in the conker traveling quite some distance, whosoever gets to it first wins it.
Another variation states that if a conker should come off the string, but is otherwise undamaged, the 'attacking' player may shout "stampsies" and attempt to stamp on the 'defending' players conker before they are able to retrieve it.
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History of Conkers

The first recorded game of Conkers using horse chestnuts was on the Isle of Wight (external - login to view) in Southern England in 1848. Until then, children used snail shells or hazelnuts.

In 1965 the World Conker Championships (external - login to view) were set up in Ashton (near Oundle (external - login to view)) Northamptonshire (external - login to view), England (external - login to view), and still take place on the second Sunday of October every year. In 2004, an audience of 5,000 turned up to watch more than 500 competitors from all over the world slug it out.

In 1993 ex-Python (external - login to view) Michael Palin (external - login to view) was disqualified from the World Conker Championships for baking his conker and soaking it in vinegar.

In 1999, the British charity ActionAid (external - login to view) applied for a patent (external - login to view) on hardening conkers, in protest at the patenting of life forms by large companies.
Aha! So that's how you get the expression "conked out"!

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