Thursday, 26 October 2006

Insects and the hot summer, to be followed by a Silent Spring?

This year has seen some wonderful numbers of butterflies. The long hot summer really seems to have benefited them. But this is also worrying because it masks the more serious problem of massive declines of most species. Insects are spiralling and there can be no doubt that extinctions on a local regional and national scale are occurring annually. One only has to drive through the countryside to realise this. Most agricultural land is a biodiversity desert. The average field of barley, beet or wheat has significantly less species diversity that an out-of-town supermarket car park. And there are thousands of acres of crops. I am not suggesting that conservationists should welcome out-of-town supermarkets, but it's a sobering thought.

The lack of diversity is camouflaged by the fact that within the surrounding hedgerows, copses and woodlands an incredible amount of diversity survives. But acre for acre, Britain is mightily impoverished. The only cause for optimism, is that the residual diversity (still declining at an alarming rate) found in these marginal habitats, could recolonise given the chance. And with over 95% of the flower rich meadows gone in Britain, there is certainly plenty of scope for improvement. But very little sign of governments, even in so-called conservation aware countries such as Britain, doing anything serious to stabilise these trends, let alone reverse them.

It is 44 years since Silent Spring was published. And the situation is far more serious. In that time the human population of the planet has more than doubled from 3 Billion to over 6 billion. That is the real environmental crisis. Global warming, loss of biodiversity, declines of insects, are all directly related to this one issue.

Editor's note: John talks about the insect crisis in Where have all our insects gone in the November issue (Volume 24, number 12) of BBC Wildlife Magazine, and in Nature's cruel twist in the Daily Express, 24th October 2006.
Helena (WLT web admin)


  1. JB has articulated what I have long felt about intensive farming. And what land-owners often wax lyrically as "our countryside".

    Chemically and intensively farmed landscapes have become functional deserts, i.e. have a species inventory of three, at a push four, over much of their area. They have been reduced to supersized job-lots confined to 'growing humans' by means of mono-crops (whether for consumption direct by humans or indirectly by their livestock). Leaving pitiful edges with a few lonely trees and shrubs is hardly "caring for our environment" and worthy of more tax-payers' money in subsidies.

    Green Belt my arse! We should be putting housing, where needed, on these deserts, NOT on so-called Brown Field sites.

    And while we're at it, we could consider scaling back on the over-consumption of animal fats, and farming as if we want to live here on a permanent basis. This would mean incorporating and encouraging biodiversity as a matter of high priority.

  2. Since we've converted our arable to organic production the fields (still monoculture, but with a small average size and hedged boundaries)have been heaving with insects including ladybirds, grasshoppers, shield bugs and various beetles - I've not tried to identify them. Our contractor has never seen anything like it anywhere else, so our case proves both the problem and that recolonisation is possible, and not just on meadows. Obviously these won't be specialist species, but they'll still be helping eg. with bird numbers. The only problem is that a lot of them end up going right though the combine at harvest and into the grain bin rather worse for wear - so modern technology is still causing them difficulties...