Insect Loss

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Much has been made of the insect Armageddon news this month – that the massive decline in insect life is overwhelmingly terrible for the world. Conservationists and entomologists have been warning about this for years but perhaps the extent of the decline has been so far unknown. New research, however, has found that three quarters of flying insects on German nature reserves have vanished in 25 years.

This is an obvious problem for the food chain: fewer insects means birds don’t get as much food, therefore fewer birds; fewer birds for mammals to feed on. And it’s not just the loss of a direct food resource for birds – insects are our pollinators, and many birds and mammals feed on flowers and plants. Without insects the entire ecosystem will collapse.

So what might have caused this worrying trend?

  • loss of wild habitats
  • use of pesticides
  • possibly climate change

The scientists involved were able to rule out weather and landscape changes as not having sufficient impact to explain the severe 75% decline.

The scientists have been using malaise traps since 1989 to trap and analyse insect numbers across 63 nature reserves in Germany; given that the landscape throughout the rest of Western Europe is pretty much the same, I think it’s safe to generalise these findings to Britain as well. Not only has the research captured a much larger range of insects than is normally studied in one research attempt, it was also carried out on nature reserves, which are protected areas.

Just to get your head around how catastrophic this decline is, bear in mind that insects have dominated and thrived on this earth for millennia – they are incredibly prolific and have been relentlessly successful. And human behaviour has caused a 75% decline in 25 years?!

The conclusion of this research – that declining insect numbers have and will have a devastating effect on ecosystems as a whole – has been demonstrated by other evidence. Spotted flycatchers, who feed primarily on flying insects, have declined by 95%. Grey partridges, which feed their chicks on insects, have all but vanished from the countryside. We know it’s true from last year’s State of Nature report, which found that in the past 50 years over 56% of species have declined and 15% are either extinct or nearly. We also know this instinctively through anecdote: see the windscreen phenomenon.

It’s not just agriculture, though I’m pretty convinced that the loss of hedgerows and flower borders means that farmland is virtually an ecological void. Yet everywhere you look, there is tidiness. What used to be front gardens are now paved over for cars.  Grass is cut on road verges and around cities as soon as it reaches your ankles – I wrote a post about this.

What can we do about it?

  • get over our cultural aversion to creepy insects
  • consider the importance of the minutiae of ecology
  • stop poisoning the land with pesticides on an industrial scale
  • make our gardens mini nature reserves
  • bang on and on about insects on your blog
  • teach your kids to appreciate insects
  • lobby your local council to stop mowing every patch of grass

 

 

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Identifying Woodland Flora

Ever wandered through a woodland glade and thought: what’s that strange flower? What’s that bird chirping away? Identifying flora and fauna is a lost art, one I’m learning to acquire, and luckily there are plenty of apps to use when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere and desperately want to know what some plant is (though if you can get 4G then you’re probably not remote enough).

Here’s a short guide focusing on what flora to look out for in woodlands and how to identify common species. Let’s do this by season.

Spring: the best time to be in a woodland. Bluebells, birds building nests, everything growing green again after the cold months. The first pilgrims are the bluebells, which emerge and carpet ancient woodlands between late April and throughout May. Swiftly following the bluebell comes the early purple orchid, usually between April and June. Also look out for wood anemone, foxglove and, of course, nettles.

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Native or Spanish bluebells? Native ones have droopy stems, Spanish ones have flowers all around the stem.

Summer: as the Spring bulbs and flowers die down they are overcome by honeysuckle, dog rose, and enchanter’s nightshade.

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Honeysuckle: a climbing plant, it entwines itself in hedgerows and bushes. Flowers look like little trumpets and it has red berries in Autumn.

 

 

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Dog-rose: most abundant wild rose. Pink or white flowers with 5 petals.

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Enchanter’s nightshade: small white or pink flowers. Not deadly, not even related to deadly nightshade; actually related to willowherb.

Autumn: my favourite season because of the colour, because of the dying. The leaves of trees take on red, orange and brown shades and slowly drop, covering the ground in those crisp leaves that we all love to walk through. I get all cosy just thinking about it! In woodlands some flowers like honeysuckle continue to bloom through the autumn, but also we see ivy flowers, providing one last drink of nectar for all those bees entering their hibernation.

Winter: the holly berries and mistletoe of Christmas time are so evocative and familiar but actually most of us probably don’t go for enough walks in woodlands in the winter to notice them. In January, snowdrops are the first to rear their tentative heads, and snow leads to gold as the lesser celandine emerge with their bright gold star-shaped flowers.

 

There’s so much happening out there if you just stop and look but it’s so difficult to identify flora if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Here are some of the apps I find helpful in getting me to know my local woodland patch. I could do a whole other post on useful apps for nature lovers so maybe I just might do that.

Woodland Trust tree ID app

Plantifier: upload a photo and the community will identify

NatureGate: and all rounder for flora and fauna in nature

iPlfanzen: rather than photos, you describe a plant according to their options.

On The Importance Of Insects

Insects are the most common of all animals on the planet, totally around 1.5 million types of insects – that’s three times more than any other animal population combined!

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They are especially important to all ecosystems because they serve two functions: to pollinate and to clean. Many of the foods we rely on are pollinated by insects, and insects also provide an efficient service in cleaning up decaying matter and decomposing animals.

Insects are also eaten by many species, including reptiles, amphibians, other insects, mammals and, of course, birds, so they are a substantial foundation in the food web that most species simply could not do without.

Since the 1950s, however, insect populations have been declining, and conservationists are particularly concerned about the falling numbers of bees, moths, and butterflies. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust suggests that this decline in bee populations is due to a combination of factors but mostly we look to the loss of wildflowers in the countryside and new agricultural techniques. They estimate that we have lost around 97% of flower-grassland since the 1930s, resulting in the extinction in the UK of two species of bees – so far. They also suggest that:

Through the pollination of many commercial crops such as tomatoes, peas, apples and strawberries, insects are estimated to contribute over £400 million per annum to the UK economy and €14.2 billion per annum to the EU economy.

A very important insect, then. But it’s not just bees that contribute to the UK economy; ladybirds, for example, eat aphids, which feed on farmers’ crops.

But those are the cute, fluffy, colourful bugs – what about the ugly bugs? Cockroaches are probably universally despised, yet the 5,000+ known species that do not inhabit urban areas provide a significant ecological service in forests by cleaning up indigestible leaf matter, and by being a food source to desert lizards and some endangered mammals. Mosquitoes, too, despite being potentially deadly to humans, are a vital food source to birds and mammals.

There are some excellent resources on the internet to learn about the valuable role of insects in all ecosystems:

National Insect Week

Amateur Entomologists’ Society

Insects.org

 

 

 

The Sixth Mass Extinction Event Is Definitely Underway

According to new international research conducted by the Stanford Woods Institute, human activity has prompted the beginning of the Sixth Mass Extinction event recorded on earth, threatening to wipe out hundreds of thousands of species, including humans.

Professor Paul Ehrlich offers what he claims to be a “conservative estimate” of species loss due to human behaviour, which he puts at 100 times faster than the background rate of extinction (a base rate of extinction if humans were absent.) The team deliberately underestimated their estimates because recording species loss is notoriously difficult, yet their statistics are all the more shocking for it.

A devastating mixture of habitat loss, climate change, pollution and overpopulation has led to an environmental disaster that scientists refer to as the Holocene extinction. It is expected that this extinction event will be as severe as the End-Crustaceous Mass Extinction, which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. That was, of course, due to an asteroid collision; this mass extinction is entirely due to human behaviour.

International Union for Conservation of Nature chart showing species loss over the last century.

And why should we care that species are dying out while humans industrialize the planet? We need biodiversity: it pollinates and irrigates our crops, purifies our water, and produces our food. We are entirely dependent on biodiversity.

The Virunga Mountain Gorillas These Days

Dian Fossey carrying out observations with a silverback

I’ve just finished reading Dian Fossey’s Gorillas In The Mist and I’m wondering how Nunkie’s Group are getting on these days.

A lot has changed in the Virunga mountains since Fossey’s horrific murder in 1985, and humans have encroached on the gorillas‘ diminishing territory even more. The 1994 Rwandan genocide interrupted the research at the Karisoke Study Centre, and, since then, this recent documentary has demonstrated that the remote gorilla territory is threatened by oil exploration, as well as poachers and farmers

When Fossey’s book was published in 1983, there were 282 known gorillas in the Virgunas, so one could be forgiven for feeling encouraged to read on Wikipedia that there are now 880. The species are still critically endangered. They have at least managed to avoid becoming one of the species discovered and annihilated in the same century, as Fossey feared.

The fight against SOCO is far from over, as the BBC has recently reported that the Democratic Republic of Congo wishes to redraw the boundaries of the park, which would presumably enable SOCO to drill for oil in certain areas. The prime minister of the DRC hopes to persuade the UN that drilling for oil in one of the most bio diverse habitats on the planet is not incompatible with its world heritage status. The Virunga park certainly meets the selection criteria because it

‘contains the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.’

Even SOCO admit that the ensuing pollution of oil exploration operations could destroy the vulnerable ecosystem and threaten the survival of already endangered species. Why risk that?

Chimps (Nearly) Awarded Human Rights

In a landmark ruling, two chimpanzees, imprisoned and abused for research, were temporarily granted legal ‘personhood’ status for the first time. The Nonhuman Rights Project launched a lawsuit against Stony Brook University in New York requesting the transfer of two research chimps, Hercules and Leo, to the Save the Chimps Florida animal sanctuary in Florida.

The activists are focused on securing the freedom of the two chimps, but their case has massive implications for exploited animals everywhere – it could potentially pave the way for other animals to gain legal status.

The Nonhuman Rights Project campaigns for primates to be granted human rights because of their intelligence and complex emotional and social lives. The activists’ mission statement demonstrates a commitment to the attainment of legal rights for some nonhuman species, which would liberate them from cruel, human exploitation, such as animal testing and circus performances.

Our mission is to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere “things,” which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to “persons,” who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them.

To be clear, the judge has not yet definitively declared the chimpanzees to have legal rights, as she later amended the order to strike the words ‘writ of habeas corpus,‘ as this would imply they are legal persons. The Nonhuman Rights Project do, however, remain positive, as this is a good opportunity to argue their case for basic human rights to be conferred on apes.

These are not the first primates to come close to gaining enough legal rights to free them from exploitation. The Great Ape Project sought to order the release of Jimmy from a zoo near Rio de Janeiro, but was unsuccessful.

The Great Ape Project was founded in 1993 and includes amongst its ranks Jane Goodall, Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins. It advocates that the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans) should be granted a UN declaration protecting their right to life, their individual liberty, and prohibiting torture.

You can support the great apes’ right to liberty, life and the freedom from torture, by signing the petition for a world declaration on great apes rights here.

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