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Insect apocalypse

It’s not just in our rivers. Modern agriculture is causing an alarmingly steep decline in all insects

The rare sight of insects splattered onto a car's front bumper is backed up by an alarming new study.
The rare sight of insects splattered onto a car's front bumper is backed up by an alarming new study.

As October comes to an end a north-westerly gale hurls rain at the window, bringing to an end the worst trout and salmon fly-fishing season I have known. This has been a season dominated by too much rain at the wrong time, cold winds through spring and early summer, and dreadful hatches of fly...

In the late 1960s I was one of a small team of ornithologists which spent the three or four days of spring high tides either side of the new moon making counts of the Arctic waders and wildfowl that migrated through, or wintered on, Morecambe Bay and the Ribble estuary. Often it was an early morning start and a late evening finish on country lanes and the one non-bird thing I noted was how many times we had to stop the cars we were using to get about simply to clean the windscreens of flying insects. 20 miles from Silverdale to the Flookburgh saltmarshes and the windscreen had to be cleaned before the return journey. We discussed just how many moths, midges and so on were splattered by cars. Today, half a century later, and I never have to clean insect corpses from the windscreen.

Some have argued that this is because the modern car is more streamlined, so that the insects are deflected in the airstream. I do not drive a swish, ‘modern’ vehicle. My Suzuki Jimny is the most unstreamlined and wonderful mode of transport for a senior citizen in his second childhood! In the late 1960s its windscreen would have needed cleaning after a long drive into the countryside, but in four years of driving the Jimny I have not had to stop to clear off any significant amount of insect detritus.

No! The sad fact is that the populations of many species of insect have collapsed in not only Britain but through much of ‘civilised’ north-west Europe. A study recently published in Germany highlights this. In the 30 years 1984-2014 there had been a decline of at least 75% of flying insects, with a decrease in high summer of 82%. One study gathered the biomass of flying insects caught in traps in the period May-October 1989; each trap caught 1.6kg of fly. This sampling was repeated in 2014; then each trap caught a mean of 300g. The loss was 81%.

A study published this month showed that bee hives in cities produce more honey than bee hives out in the countryside: 22.5lb compared with 12.5lb. But the British Bee Keepers’ Association added a rider, that the honey production in rural hives in the 1950s was four times the modern average, with 100lb crops being not unusual. What is wrong out there in the countryside? And does it affect trout anglers?

At the Grayling Society Symposium weekend (see below) I spoke with Robin Mulholland of the Piscatorial Society, which has some of southern England’s finest chalkstreams. His conclusion: dreadful hatches. I swapped emails with Oliver Edwards, who knows more than most about Yorkshire’s wonderful trout streams. His conclusion: the worst season he has known, with the blue-winged olive hatch a complete failure.

The problem is modern agriculture.

Anything that grows on modern arable farmland and is not a crop plant is sprayed to death. And where half a century ago arable farmers often had a clover crop to add nitrogen to the soil to nurture the wheat or barley, today it’s a case of add inorganic nitrogen.

Increasingly, dairy farming is becoming factory farming, where huge herds of Holstein (black and white) cattle are kept permanently in huge sheds and all the fields (what were separate pasture and meadow) have been turned into a  grass monoculture, of grasses bred to give high protein in the milk.

When I first fished the Ribble and Hodder in the 1960s and 1970s the air buzzed with the wings of billion flies, skylarks sang overhead, and the meadows and pastures had lots and lots of flowers, including primroses, ladies’ smock, daisy, two species of buttercup, meadow cranesbill and, in the wetter parts (now drained), meadowsweet and flag iris. Not today. The fields are green, with no flowers other than the odd dandelion, and the grass crop (silage, not hay) taken two or three times through spring and summer. And the air is silent.

And the trout streams? The nutrient level in the water is increased by irresponsible spraying of the fields with cow slurry (“We’ve got to get rid of it somehow!” say farmers) and with high nitrogen, phosphate and potassium fertilisers that get washed into the water after heavy rain (one EA fisheries man pointed to a farmer spreading fertiliser and remarked, “He’s feeding the blanketweed!”).

Added to that is the effluent from sewage works which, though officially ‘clean’, contain high levels of plant nutrients from household detergents. That is why that fine Cumbrian lake, Bassenthwaite, turns green in warm summers; the algae are fed nutrients far, far more than they were in even more recent times. That is why, in warm sunny summer spells, the beds of clean streams become clothed in the alga Cladophora (blanketweed), which, on warm summer evenings, deoxygenates the river bed, killing the more sensitive stoneflies and upwinged flies (like the nymphs of Robin’s and Oliver’s blue-winged olives).

As the human population of the lowlands of the British Isles continues to grow more rapidly than it has ever done, things can only get worse. As The Daily Telegraph reported on October 27, “The UK’s population will rise by 7.3 million people between 2016 and 2041...It will hit 70 million by the end of the next decade.”  These people will want somewhere to live (loss of more Green Belt?), will want clean water (more abstraction?), will want more food (even more intensive farming on a smaller area of farmland?) and will produce more waste (so more eutrophication of rivers and lakes?).

Grayling Society

The annual Grayling Society Symposium was, as ever, a great event despite the weather taking away the opportunity for members to fish the Dee on the Sunday for its fine grayling. On the Saturday, Mark Lloyd of the Angling Trust spoke of the problems faced by our rivers because of modern man (and woman) and the fact that few young people are taking up angling. I looked around the room. I don’t think that there was anyone present under the age of 55.

Good anglers are applied naturalists who, besides enjoy catching fish, care for our rivers and the wildlife in and around rivers. Who will care for our rivers and the wildlife in and around rivers when we are gone?
Sorry to be so pessimistic.

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