All things bright and beautiful, all insects great and small

Walking up the Langdales in the Sixties, I can remember it was glorious - apart from the crowd of flies swarming in the heat around every walker. Going up Loughrigg (it is a bit easier!) 50 years later not much sign of flies at all—on the face of it hurrah! But a series of new studies show how deadly dangerous this is, not just to insects themselves, but to our whole civilisation.

 

The latest study is in Biological Conservation (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320718313636 ). It is good quality, peer reviewed research and references lots of other relevant material but it will cost you $40 or so to download so for good summaries of this and other papers try

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/15/insect-collapse-we-are-destroying-our-life-support-systems or https://www.buglife.org.uk/news-and-events/news/insect-decline-a-major-global-crisis .

 

The essence of it is that we have not studied insect population numbers very closely in the past. Now we are looking at what is changing. Within 20-30 years (–not in a 100 but 20-30 years!) 40% of the vast number of insect species will be extinct. The disaster for us is apparent when we think of pollinators—not just bees but myriad species, - and dung beetles,-dung beetle work in the UK is valued at £367 million ,if you like that way of judging the value of nature.  However, it goes much further than that. All the species that eat the insects die too, along with the whole complex of interlinked species dependent on them. That is already happening in Puerto Rico, where the bird and frog species dependent on insects are disappearing at the same 50-60 % rates. In the UK the loss of insect species is amongst the highest in the world, although that is perhaps because more studies are done here.

 

The causes—as might be expected climate change is thought to be a major factor as insect reproductive fitness is sensitive to increasing average temperature. Huge monoculture fields with no hedges and minimal trees and shrubs have a major negative effect and this is very much increased by using pesticides. Neonicotinoids, fipronil and the like appear to be especially destructive, persisting in soil and water killing the grubs that are the young of mature insects, and flowing into areas like nature reserves killing the insects there. Urban growth, without planning to maintain green areas and corridors is a major factor. Lack of green corridors joining green areas leave species marooned on “islands” and so limited in their chance to breed successfully-the old Loop Line in Liverpool is not just for cyclists but probably represents an important highway for other species across the city. Insects and cyclists unite for greenways!

 

What do we do? It is very comforting writing a blog, but for the first time in my life since the Sixties it seems like confrontational protest is the only way to face up to the banal, do what is politically possible attitude of both council and government.

 

Locally, it is not simply a matter of fighting to keep the green spaces, but to fight to see them managed in a way that is sustainable for wildlife. We need areas with flat improved grassland for footy, we need walking and cycle routes but can’t the bulk be for humans and wildlife to enjoy together? There are many challenges in Liverpool but the recent council decision to allow development of a wildlife area into a cricket pitch in Sefton Park, ( https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/tense-scenes-liverpool-council-approves-15800385 ) is a case in point, as is the ongoing attempt by Highways England to push a road through Rimrose Park, ( https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/fight-protect-rimrose-valley-country-10601632 ).  Even if we keep the green space our council wants to formalise park space to suit some human need to be in control of nature. Not long ago I could see men, paid by the council, hoovering up leaves under the hedgerows in Calderstones Park—what did that do for the insects and other invertebrates that got sucked into the hoover’s maw? What did it do for the birds that would have eaten the insects?  The irony of this is that a sustainable management system can save the council money—see  American experience and ideas at https://conservationtools.org/guides/93-creating-sustainable-community-parks .

 

Nationally, Mr. Gove says some fine words now but what will happen post Brexit? Can we ban the purchase, use, manufacture and export of pesticides such as neonicotinoids immediately, rather than just restrict their use? Internationally can we stop their use? Can we really set about changing farming into a sustainable practice? Can we really do all that is necessary to halt climate change? We have not just got a Climate Emergency, we have an Environmental Emergency of the most fundamental kind. If we fail to tackle it, which seems very likely, then our descendants face the life Russel Hoban described in “Riddley Walker”-and that is at best. Much as it scares me, the deaths of all these insects is the signal that I need to climb out of my comfortable bubble and do something about it.

 

David Teasdale, putorius65@gmail.com