A Harebell attracting insects in a unique Staffordshire meadow; more than 95 per cent of similar fields have disappeared in the past 50 years
Following that depressing last post regarding George Monbiot’s in-depth look at the overuse of insecticides and the incalculable damage they seem to be doing [click here if you can face reading George's article], it was time to cheer myself up – and you – with a good, long walk.
Taking heed of the only Latin tag I can ever remember – solvitur ambulando – meaning “it is solved by walking” or, as I prefer,”walk your worries away”, we took advantage of the good weather to head down the hill from my parents’ house to Dimmingsdale.
A favourite family walk since childhood, this beautiful fragment of North Staffordshire once belonged to the Earl of Shrewsbury but is now Forestry Commission-owned and open to all. We strode through the ancient woodland and, as always, I kept a weather eye open for wildlife and insects but saw virtually nothing.
This was perhaps partially due to the success of Himalayan basalm, an invasive weed smothering everything in its path. Or maybe the Glyphosate and 2,4-D amine herbicides recommended for its control by the, ahem, Environment Agency. To be fair, on their website they also add there is “encouraging evidence” that grazing has potential for biological control (who’d have thought?). But, whatever the reason, something was putting the insects off their food.
Indeed, in the three months since we returned to the UK, despite some glorious weather and lots of suitable-looking flowers in gardens and hedgerows, I’ve not seen many insects of note. Plenty of bumblebees thankfully [click here for a brilliant ID guide] and wasps, the odd hoverfly, beetle and moth but I can count the honey bees I’ve seen this summer on two hands. And part of one foot.
It was the same in France, incidentally. Indeed, my friend’s 80-year-old grandfather, who’s lived his whole life in the same house in Burgundy, said in the past five years he’d only got a handful of cherries from each of his normally dependable, blossom-covered trees because there were no longer any bees to pollinate them. The reason? Chemicals, “sans doute”, spat the grizzled old man of the land, whose garden is now surrounded by intensively-sprayed vineyards.
As for butterflies, it’s still early and last year’s summer was a washout but other than a veritable plague of Cabbage Whites, so far I’ve seen just a few Red Admirals, a couple of Peacocks and a handful of Ringlets and Meadow Browns and that’s across three counties. Trust me, I’ve been looking hard.
Ranger Field in Staffordshire; nature the way it used to be
Then we reached Ranger Field, one of my favourite places in the world, and everything changed for the better. Although I’ve visited this tiny heathland meadow countless times since I was a child, it’s years since I’d last been. It hadn’t lost its magic; as always, it was literally buzzing and humming with insects and other wildlife.
Within minutes of entering it, we’d all noticed the difference. I had my fairly rubbish quality (but waterproof and, crucially, dustproof) Ricoh camera in my pocket and snapped the following photographs – plus several other, even more, blurred ones – over the next hour:
A Bumblebee coming back for more Willowherb; I saw several different species, including honey bees
There were Gatekeeper butterflies (note the two white spots on black) galore, as well as their more common cousin, the Meadow Brown
A handsome Speckled Wood; the first I’ve identified in more than thirty years as an avid amateur entomologist
A nest of native baby Common (or Viviparous – meaning ‘live-bearing’) lizards
Colour co-ordinated: a Peacock, one of Britain’s prettiest butterflies and until recently a common sight in every garden, not just the lucky few
I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing; I’d always known this place was special and apart from the occasional small herd of grazing cows it certainly wasn’t intensively farmed. But I genuinely couldn’t understand why there were so many more insects here than elsewhere – it was like a different land.
It wasn’t until we were leaving that a new sign fastened onto the gatepost spelled it out in black and white and all became clear, to me at least. And presumably to the Forestry Commission experts who’d written it.
All there in black and white: controlled grazing + no agricultural chemicals = biodiversity and insects galore
The reason we were seeing so many insects here was that we were almost literally walking in the (pre-intensive farming) past. I’d not realised how rare and unique my favourite field was; according to the sign, more than 95 per cent of similar, insect-friendly fields which don’t get routinely sprayed or sown with agrichemicals have sadly “disappeared”. That’s nearly all of them.
Almost as soon as we had walked through the gate into the real world, the insects seemed to sense they weren’t welcome any more and one by one they too quietly disappeared. Perhaps it was something we said? Or, more likely, something they ate.
So how can we explain the profusion of insects in Ranger Field? I suspect George Monbiot would have a theory or two but I can already hear Monsanto and Syngenta shooting them down with their multi-purpose “that’s not scientific” bullet. Well-funded, misleading PR does seem to work wonders, with apathy and a general belief that “they” wouldn’t allow anything to irrevocably damage the environment doing the rest. In the end, it’s almost impossible for the little guy to prove a negative, even when all the evidence you need is flying around your face. Or not, as the case may be.
Whatever the reason, there is still hope. Forewarned is forearmed and all that. There’s even a big piece in today’s Guardian about how to attract pollinators to your garden [see here]. And if you manage to buy a bag of wildflower seeds, ditch the garden chemicals and maybe even support those organic farmers already doing all of that, then all power to your arm.
A better future for our insects is there for everyone to see by taking a stroll down memory lane to Ranger Field or somewhere similarly untouched and seeing native butterflies and bees thriving in a natural, pre-insecticide habitat.
I’m pretty certain I know the reason why they prefer fields liks this to the vast green deserts created by intensive farming but I have no “scientific” proof. Happily for me – and for all of us really – the insects don’t seem to mind.