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Don't bug the "bugs" - they're vital

Friday 29 May 2009

In a week when our countryside commentator John Sheard spotted the first mayfly of the year, he records with satisfaction the long-overdue recognition of the importance of insects in Mother Nature’s scheme of things

THERE are many ugly Americanisms polluting the English language and most of them, associated with new technology, are a total mystery to me. Because I am writing this on a computer, does this make me a “nerd” – a word whose origins baffle me?

But there is one slang term I do understand and it annoys me deeply: “bugs” used as a noun to cover all insect species or as a verb to upset people: it “bugs” me. And it demonstrates the shallowness of the American urban mind: insects are a nuisance that should be swept from the face of the earth (they tried their best by inventing DDT back in the 1950s, causing world-wide environmental damage).

Sawfly
Sawfly: vital ugly bug
Image courtesy of Game Conservation

As a fly-fisherman, I have long been an amateur student of entomology for I know how important insect life is to the fish in the rivers I fish and the birds that swoop above them. As a gardener, I know the baddies of the insect world – the various aphids – and the good guys (girls?) which feed on them, like the ladybirds.

Some, of course, are exquisitely beautiful, like the butterflies, the iridescent damsel flies or the poor Mayfly, which spends three years grubbing about on the on the river bed before hatching with one purpose in mind: to mate. That done, it dies – as a fly, you see, it has no mouth or stomach with which to feed.

I saw my first Mayfly this week and spent a good few minutes watching as it emerged from the beck and began to circle round looking for a prospective mate – in vain. It was snapped up by a pied wagtail doing somersaults in the air and went to its doom a virgin, poor thing, although it almost certainly fed one of the wagtail’s chicks, which is the way of nature red in tooth and claw.

There are, however, many insects – “bugs” if you will – that are far from pretty, like the almost indestructible leather jacket, bane of the gardener and larvae of the daddy longlegs and, as in our picture, the caterpillar-like sawfly larvae which most people would take to be a nasty but which is in fact a very important delicacy on the rural feed table. One which, in the past 50 years, has almost disappeared – with drastic consequences.

Anyone who spends any time in the countryside will have noted the virtual disappearance of the grey partridge. It was once found in virtually every meadow, and not to put up at least one covey during and evening’s walk – especially if out with a dog – would have been almost unheard of.

But the grey partridge is now a rarity, having decline by a massive 87% in the past 40 years, according to the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. And why has it suffered: because the sawfly and scores of other “bugs” have gone too, deprived of their habitat by intensive farming and poisoned by various insecticides which killed the goodies along with the bad guys.

The sawfly larvae and some other slow-moving insects were amongst the favourite foods of newly-hatched partridge chicks and were once found in abundance in our fields. Now, they are so rare that if such chicks are lucky enough to hatch – which assumes that their parents found a mate – they are likely to starve to death.

Anyone who spends any time in the countryside will have noted the virtual disappearance of the grey partridge

But all is not lost. The game trust became away of this problem some years ago and has started a nationwide campaign to persuade and educate farmers of the benefits of leaving an uncultivated “headland” round fields and allowing corn stubble to stand in their fields over winter.

One of these courses is to be held at Wigton in Cumbria next Tuesday (June 2) and its theme is the importance of insects in the natural order of things. To book a place, or for further details, please contact Lynda Ferguson on 01425 651013 or email: lferguson@gct.org.uk

Just how important this is to partridges is the stunning fact that a single chick can consume 2,000 insects in a day. And, of course, it is not only game birds which thrive of this diet: most song birds enjoy insects as part of their food supply, particularly at nesting time.

In the rivers and streams, fish receive the same benefit and they, in turn, support birds like herons and kingfishers and the increasing number of otters now living in the Yorkshire Dales. So farmers and gardeners please don’t bug the bugs: they are vital to a healthy, living and breathing countryside.

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