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Wanted: some TLC for our missing bugs

Friday 15 August 2008

Once upon a time, our countryside commentator John Sheard had to buy special sprays to clear the squashed flies from his windshield. Now, he wonders where all the bugs have gone – and welcomes some new advice which might bring them back

BACK in the days when we had summers – remember? – this was the time of the year when I would drive to the river late of an evening hoping for a rising trout or, better still, a fresh run sea trout.

On the way, I would often have to stop because I could no longer see through my windscreen. The reason: there were so many flying insects in the air, millions of them from scores of different species, that they caked my windscreen with smeared blood and tissue.

TLC for missing insects
Where have all the insects gone?

This was often so thick that mere water from the windscreen washers only made matters worse so I had to buy expensive, and rather pungent, chemical aerosols to clear my view – or risk crashing into a roadside tree in the gathering gloom.

I always hated those sprays because I suspected the chemicals used were not good for the environment – this was long before the global warming scare – and in that way it is good that I have not had to use them for perhaps 20 years. The bad news it that scientists are asking with increasing anxiety: where have all the insects gone?

There may be people out there who are glad to be rid of summer bugs, particularly flying ones which bite or sting, ruining the picnic or the barbecue in the back garden. But they should realise that insects form the base of a very tall food chain and without them millions of birds, fish, mammals like bats and amphibians like frogs are at risk.

The vanishing bug has directly impacted on my leisure life. Brown trout have almost disappeared from some of the rivers I fish and I put that down to the lack of the flies and their larvae which are the brown trout’s staple food.

And in my allotment, I have had a very poor crop of beans and peas and I suspect that is because many of these plants have not been propagated. That is no doubt partially due to the fact that bees, the main propagators, have had little flying time in all the rain and high winds of this dismal summer. But there has been a worrying absence of other insects which carry out this vital task.

I had been pondering this matter since the first broad beans flowered in spring but it came into sharp focus this week when I received a press release from an organisation which has a very high reputation for its scientific research: the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

insects form the base of a very tall food chain and without them millions of birds, fish, mammals like bats and amphibians like frogs are at risk

It was called “Making the Countryside Buzz” and it was advice to farmers and gardeners on how to encourage insects to multiply on the farm or in the borders of the veg patch because Trust scientists have been monitoring the decline in insect life for half a century.

It began in the 1960s when the trust, which is funded by the game shooting industry but is also a leader in countryside management, began to receive reports of a sharp drop in the grey partridge population, a mainstay of shooting for 200 years or more.

Investigations discovered that partridge chicks were literally starving to death because their energy rich diet had slumped alarmingly or had even totally disappeared. That diet had considered of caterpillars, hoppers, bugs, click beetles and sawfly larvae.

This discovery set in chain years of research and it is now widely recognised by many conservation bodies that the dramatic slump in our insect life – probably brought about by intensive farming and the increased use of chemical pesticides by gardeners – has wreaked havoc further up the food chain.

But instead of castigating farmers and gardeners, as some of the more so-called “green” environmental pressure groups do with evident relish, the Game Conservancy set out to advise people on how to farm or garden in ways that will actually encourage, rather than destroy, insect life (See News, Tuesday, August 12).

This includes the very careful use of pesticides essential circumstances only – which has the additional bonus of reducing costs – and the construction of such things as “beetle banks” as shown in our illustration.

This is merely an area on the edge of a field which has been left to grow wild in a way that benefits insects as well as other wildlife. Gardeners can make similar simple structures. Not only could we achieve better crops but we might also see the return of the grey partridge – and perhaps some fatter brown trout in the rushing streams of Yorkshire Dales.

  • The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has prepared three free fact sheets advising farmers and gardeners on insect friendly practice. For copies or advice on creating wildlife rich habitats, please contact the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, telephone 01425 651060 or "email: jbushnell@gct.org.uk

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