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Shimmering in the sunlight: a ray of hope

Friday 25 April 2008

The sun shone at last this week and out of the gloom came a shaft of good news for our countryside commentator John Sheard. Although they are faring badly elsewhere, dragonflies are thriving in Airedale

IN THE days when Walt Disney was turning out his animated masterpieces, there were frequent scenes when characters like Snow White were drawn out of their gloomy moods by crows of technicolour birds or butterflies dancing around their heads, urging them to cheer up with song and colour.

I was reminded of some of these scenes this week by what at first seemed bad news. Along with soaring food prices, sour politics, and the growing bitterness of the bio-fuel debates, it was also reported that dragonflies are in sharp decline in many parts of the UK.

At risk from cats?
Photo: Tim Caroen/British Dragonfly Society

According to the British Dragonfly Society (BDS) 14 of Britain’s 39 species of dragon flies are in steep decline because of climate change and habitat destruction. They include the beautiful demoiselle (See Photo).

Now I don’t want this to be a thumb on the nose, nah-nah-na-na-narh moment, but this just ain’t the case here in the Yorkshire Dales, at least with damsel flies in Airedale. So perhaps there is something going right here which is worth studying to teach to less fortunate places in the UK.

I know this from personal experience for there is as spot on the River Aire not too far from Skipton where I regularly fish with clouds of electric-blue damsel flies cavorting around my head like the aforesaid birds, butterflies and bees in Walt Disney movies.

These really are one of the great beauties of the natural world, a British rival to anything you see on TV from the Brazilian rain forest. When the sun catches that intense metallic blue, it flashes like a laser beam firing. It makes our butterflies, even the most brilliant ones, decidedly dowdy. The only comparable sight on the Aire is the multi-coloured flash of a kingfisher lancing by.

Now this is very interesting from a scientific, as well as aesthetic, point of view and it gives me a growing sense that things really are getting better here in the Yorkshire Dales – but I am not sure why.

Downstream from Keighley, the Aire was once one of the most polluted rivers in the country, in parts virtually dead of all fish or insect life. It was never that bad from Skipton up into Malhamdale but there were still great concerns about farm fertilisers and pesticides leaching into the river.

otters are back in the Aire and now the gorgeous dragonfly is fighting back

Effluent from silage clamps is particularly toxic, including chemicals like ammonia. I once covered a pollution court case when the prosecution claimed that a 500-acre dairy farm which fed its stock on silage produced as much pollution as a town the size of Harrogate.

Of all the creatures that suffer from such pollution, insect larvae are the most vulnerable. To kill off of this insect life in our rivers reacts all the way up the food chain to lead to fewer fish and birds and animals which feed on the fish like herons and otters.

In the past 20 years, the heron has staged one of the most massive come-backs in natural history, helped no doubt by milder winters but set against a drastic decline in two of their major food sources, frogs and eels. As I have reported before, otters are back in the Aire and now the gorgeous dragonfly is fighting back too.

It is fashionable in some “green” quarters to blame mankind for all the world’s ills. Farmers in particular have been excoriated for years. But here in the Yorkshire Dales, there are signs than things are getting much, much better. As to why, I am not quite sure – so let’s find out so that other, less fortunate, regions can benefit.

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