Thursday, 13 May 2010

Silent Night

I miss cicadas. 

I don't think most people in this country realize how noisy the countryside should be, or would think something is wrong when walking through a silent field at night.  There is only one species of cicada in England and its restricted to the New Forest in the south.  There are several species of crickets and grasshoppers as well, but I have only rarely seen them (again in the south) and never heard one calling.  To someone who grew up in the colonies, its horribly unnatural to hear so little of the night chorus and highlights the degree to which this country has extirpated its local fauna.  One of the saddest aspects is that thanks to Victorian and Edwardian collectors and enthusiasts, there is no country with a better record of the species of insects and other invertebrates that live here, and yet this record makes it painfully clear just how much the native species  have been extinguished from this island with so many species either locally extinct, pushed into patches of marginal territory, or in the case of the once common freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera) and several of the oak species, only ancient individuals remain with no young having been recruited for decades.  Changing climates (and a run of bad summers) is expected to put several of the rarer butterfly species here at risk of extinction from these islands, but as these species have become so restricted in their locations, I'm not sure anyone but a handful of experts will notice that they are gone.

...and that of course is the problem.  Its been a slow and gradual process of loss, such that the scale has not been apparent to the average resident.  Most Englanders my age think that what they run across (or more, what they don't run across) when out in the countryside is "normal".  Their parents may remember there being more butterflies or more of some flowers (perhaps they once saw a lady slipper orchid in the woods - now these flowers are so rare they need police protection) but its been such a gradual process that even they have largely accepted it.  Its only once you look back at the old records - descriptions of clouds of moths surrounding gas lamps, or boxes containing hundreds of faded moth specimens - that you appreciate the scale of the loss.

The picture, by the way, is a cicada molt skin photographed in a small Myrtle Beech forest in south Australia. I've still never had the luck to find one here in England.

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