So long, and thanks for all the food: The Insect Apocalypse

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Common Darter (Pete Cooper)

Just over six years ago, I wrote the first entry on this blog at the tender age of 17, entitled ‘Loving the Bug’. Looking back on it is like reading your old pieces of school coursework, one part charmed at the unabashed enthusiasm one part dismayed at my novice blogger’s style!

The key theme of the article holds true though: the need to place greater value on invertebrates within mainstream conservation. All this time later, what was essentially innocent testing-the-waters of the blogging world has a refreshed relevance to recent research that received wide reception in the mainstream press. The 75% decline of insect biomass from German nature reserves in 25 years is, if representative of much of rural Europe, quite simply horrific.

The full scale of massive insect decline is something that is very unpleasant to realise. Once you consider the loss of pollination for vast numbers of plant species, both within the ecological and agricultural context, it all builds up from small beginnings into chaos on par with the butterfly effect (or rather, the lack of butterfly effect). This blog won’t go too heavy into the details of this, as it’s something George Monbiot covered succinctly last month.

Needless to say, it’s bad for us. And just as bad for wildlife.

Last month, I attended the excellent ‘Farm-Environment 30’. This was a joint venture between Young Farmers Clubs and A Focus on Nature, the youth nature network of which I’m a committee member. Organised by fellow AFON committee member and friend Ben Eagle and hosted brilliantly by Rob Yorke, this was a neutral space for free discussion between the two, sometimes opposing, parties that nevertheless found all kinds of common ground on the day. This is essential for any progress in UK conservation given 72% of Britain is farmland, and the fate of insect life is inevitably tied to it.

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Jim Egan leads young farmers and conservationists around the Allerton Project (Ben Eagle)

We were led by the very knowledgeable Jim Egan around Loddington Farm, home of the Allerton Project. This long-running study by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust has been demonstrating how farming and enhancing local wildlife can both work and make a profit, if you put the effort in. And one that Jim returned to again and again was: “no insects, no wildlife”.

This may seem simple enough. It’s a basic question of food chains. Primary school level stuff. But it’s amazing how we can get so worked up developing complex conservation schemes for this and that species, without ever really considering whether there’s enough food in the kitchen.

With humans being a species that likes big, visual answers to our questions, I’ve seen the ‘too many predators’ answer touted many a time, particularly in relation to raptors. It was briefly raised at Loddington, though I hasten to add it was discussed very maturely. It is perhaps not surprising this is the view of many, particularly older generations that are seeing far more than in the baseline of their youth. Most predators would have previously been in short supply from the moment Elizabeth I decreed mass ‘vermin’ eradication through the Preservation of Grain Act, right up to the effect of DDTs after the Second World War. They’re in your face, and create an almost Disney-like simplicity to the idea of “take out the teeth and talons, nice wildlife comes back”.

That said, there are complexities that mean predation can cause some local declines due to human modification of the environment. But it is by far not the biggest issue, and ecologically is more like bailing out water rather than fixing the hole in the boat. Songbirds have always coped with predators, but starvation because of lack of insects is a new challenge.

The fact that car windscreens are no longer thick with splattered fly in the summer is a far more ominous portent of doom. While habitat loss is likely to have played a part in this bug apocalypse, the liberal application of numerous insecticides onto the land is difficult to ignore.

The link between our treatment of the land and the number of insects it supports was made starkly clear to me in Transylvania, three summers ago. The low-intensity craft with which they tend the land is practically medieval, as the country only joined the EU and Common Agricultural Policy in the last few years. It’s cutting hay by hand, ploughing by horse – and no insecticides.

As you walked through meadows where the grasses and wildflowers grew thick to your knees, every footstep sent up a green explosion of grasshoppers like living confetti around your feet. Butterflies buffeted in droves over the tussocks in lazy summer heat, and by night the single beam of a weak camp-light on tent canvas was covered in so many moths you could barely see the fabric below.

Coming back home was one of the most depressing experiences I’ve had as a naturalist. The scale at which we have degraded the building blocks of ecology had been made far more obvious to me than any article or documentary could hope to convey. We don’t necessarily have to go back to the ultra-low intensity farming seen out there, but when we know where the problems stem from, in our learned, developed society, surely we should be putting wildlife back into essential policy rather than a sorry-looking bucket labelled ‘nice to have’?

The insects in the German study all came from nature reserves – in essence, small islands within a sea of agriculture blitzed with numerous pesticides. The fight-back needs to start from its cause, so rather than villainising farmers, we need to target the policies they have to follow, and bring the former on board as champions in the wildlife revival of Britain. Micheal Gove has been saying the right things in response, a bizarre new trait of his that has been stunning so many in the conservation world (last week he also claimed to be a big fan of beavers). Whether real action follows remains to be seen, but we can’t afford to dally around.

Over the last seven weeks, Blue Planet II has adeptly inter-woven the groundbreaking, cinematic wildlife footage the BBC Natural History Unit is famous for with an unshirking and powerful message about the terrifying impact we are having on our oceans. Sir David Attenborough, in an hour of Sunday night Television, has probably done more for making millions think about their impact on nature – such as deciding to cut down on plastic use – than years of NGO campaigning. Would it be possible to do a similar documentary that highlighted the impact we are having on our insects?

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Highly recommended: ‘The Moth Snowstorm’

About five years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Mike McCarthy for the first time, who wrote the acclaimed book The Moth Snowstorm; it is the most powerfully written account of insect apocalypse I have read. Mike was a colleague of my brother at The Independent back when it was in print, and Charlie introduced me to him at his desk. “So Peter,” he said, to the point, with little in the way of formal introductions, “what are your specialities, as such?” I gingerly explained it was mammals, realising that in natural history circles this is essentially like saying your favourite Beatles album is ‘the Greatest Hits of the Beatles’. “Hmm, right.” Mike mused. “Have you ever considered moths? Or beetles? Plants are very important, and we need more botanists. But if you want to stay in zoology, you really can’t overlook the insects.”

Much like my first blog, that conversation has come back to me with renewed relevance. Not just for me personally, but for everyone who has a stake in the conservation of the natural world.

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