Do you remember the splatometer? It was a means of counting insects on your number plate, as part of the Big Bug Count back in 2004.
This was organised to raise awareness of the decrease in insect numbers due to factors such as climate change, the use of agrochemicals (both in the garden and the wider countryside), habitat loss and changes in land management.
Insect declines are well-documented across the world. A recent article stated that ‘Two scientific studies of the number of insects splattered by cars have revealed a huge decline in abundance at European sites in two decades.’ (see document). This should concern us all – there are some pretty serious implications for all species (not least humans).
When we moved our home and office to the Bowland area of Lancashire a few years ago, one of the fascinating things that I noticed was the occasional abundance of moths on warm summer evenings (usually when driving to and from bat surveys). This was quite unlike what I had experienced previously – actually seeing large flying insects in abundance in the UK. There is no doubt that the ability of our environment to support a diverse invertebrate community has declined massively, even in my lifetime.
As usual, with a busy life, my mind had been full of all sorts of other things until last week, when a couple of events made me think about this again.
Last week we spent part of a morning surveying sand martins. The birds nest every year in a working quarry, as shown in the images below.
You can see from the images that the nest site (around the edge of the green pool) is like an oasis in a sea of rock. The martins, which are obligate insectivores, forage in swirling groups of over 50 birds, not just over the pools, but all over the quarry. Their ability to continuously swoop, dive and catch food on the wing is exhilarating to watch. I can’t even see what they are scooping up, but there must be enough to support the colony, including the young birds raised here every year.
The horizontal nest burrows are in a layer of clay in an almost sheer face; despite this, some are predated by stoats and something larger (you can see what may well be badger claw marks in the image above).
During the survey, we wondered whether the prolonged, settled weather would help to guarantee enough insect food to support the adults during nest excavation and egg laying in particular. I thought that this was the end of the story until our next visit – that is until the journey home.
Imagine our surprise when we had to stop the van to clean hundreds of dead insects off the windscreen. This was highly unusual – I couldn’t remember the last time I needed to do this in the UK. I was so excited, I almost forgot to photograph the evidence!
Now this is something worth thinking about. How much difference has the lockdown for Covid 19 (in combination with stable and warm weather) made to our insect populations? Could this influence our suggestions for habitat management (even on a local scale) in the future? And is it time to dust off the splatometer, so that we have some sort of baseline data from this unusual period, to remind us about some of the positive environmental changes, when we reflect at a later date?