By Philip English

The Australian painted apple moth is the new alien insect species infesting part of West Auckland.

Its caterpillars feed on a range of plants, including fruit trees, acacia, pines, eucalyptus, willows, ferns and roses.

Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry officials are expected to take about four days to decide whether to try to eradicate it. First they must determine the extent of the problem and its threat. Staff monitoring the infestation yesterday squashed egg masses and pupae. There were also said to be masses of caterpillars.

The ministry's chief forestry officer, Dr Ruth Frampton, says there may be localised ground spraying over the weekend as an initial containment measure. Several empty shipping containers are strewn near the infested site.

The ministry, citing the Privacy Act, would not identify the area, but it is known to be a Glendene industrial estate.

The insect comes from Australia's southeastern mainland and Tasmania. Dr Frampton had no idea how the moth arrived in Auckland, but as it frequently lays eggs on inanimate objects as well as vegetation it could have come in on a container.

Local orchardists said they had heard about the moth only through the news media and had not been approached by Government officials. One said the outbreak showed that someone checking imports had failed to do his or her job.

The painted apple moth lays white glossy egg masses containing as many as 700 eggs, and like its close relative the white-spotted tussock moth - target of a successful $12 million aerial and ground-spraying campaign in Kohimarama in 1996-97 - can produce several generations a year. Its caterpillar is also distinctive.

Dr Frampton advised residents to look for unusual caterpillars or gardens plants being stripped of their leaves.