All creatures great and small

Hoverfly on a yellow aster
Hoverfly on a yellow aster
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With numbers in decline, Richard Aspinall reports on how a project launched in the north of the county is transforming the countryside.

We are very good at growing grass in this country. Perhaps too good. As traditional agriculture methods have changed and yields boosted beyond the dreams of earlier generations thanks to increasing use of fertilisers, nature has been squeezed out. Today, fields which were one alive with the buzz of insects thanks to a rich pattern of wildflowers have now been replaced by grass. Lots and lots of grass.

These green deserts, which often stretch for miles, have not been kind to wildlife. Farmland birds, from skylarks to lapwings, are in perilous decline and perhaps even more important are the problems faced by a whole raft of tiny creatures. The natural habitat of bees, beetles, worms and woodlice is disappearing at an alarming rate and if the trend can’t be halted it could have disastrous consequences for the wider environment.

However, the future is not entirely bleak and a little patch of land in Wharfedale could at least provide reason for optimism. The Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) close to Simon’s Seat is a riot of colour and if this little corner of Yorkshire can be replicated elsewhere it could throw a lifeline to millions of tiny invertebrates.

Paul Evans is confident it can. A southerner who arrived in Yorkshire in 1992, in part attracted by the county’s landscape, he works for the charity Buglife. As its name suggests, the organisation is concerned with the small things, but it has big ambitions.

“We should be protecting all the little things that are busy doing jobs for us, unseen and free of charge, but all we are doing is getting rid of them,” says Paul. “They maintain the soil, help break down waste and pollinate our crops. Basically they are the ‘workforce’ that keeps the countryside and the wider environment going.”

According to Paul, one in three mouthfuls of food we consume requires an insect pollinator and to steal a quote from David Attenborough that sits atop Buglife’s website: “If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world’s ecosystems would collapse.”

Buglife is now four years into a national project which was first piloted in Yorkshire in 2011. B-Lines, initially funded by the Cooperative Group, began by exploring just what could be done to conserve areas of habitat that insect pollinators needed to thrive and spread; namely areas rich with wildflowers for food and shelter.

Clearly, bees were uppermost in people’s minds, but there are many hundreds of insects from gnats to hoverflies that pollinate crops, from commercial apple orchards to peas in an allotment. In the UK, there are more than 1,500 species of insect pollinators, and bees - of which there are over 260 species - shoulder the burden of the work.

When Paul and colleagues began talking to landowners, local authorities, other charities and farmers’ groups, it became clear that what was needed was a network of wildlife-friendly sites that could bridge the gaps formed by the sterile, intensively farmed areas.

The result was B-Lines, a series of wildlife corridors, occasionally running along river valleys, coastal strips and even roadside verges could then allow nectar-hungry insects to move across the country and link flower-rich habitats together.

Four years in and the Buglife website shows a map of the UK with a spreading network of B-Lines in place. Naturally, Yorkshire and the north features more heavily than the rest of the country, though projects in other areas are developing. Users can click on the interactive map to locate to see what’s going on in their area as other individuals, local conservation organisations and landowners post information about their local patch.

“We’ve lost more than 97 per cent of our wildflower-rich grassland since the 1930s,” says Paul, wandering through a now rare patch of flowers with names like yellow rattle, sheep’s bit scabious and ox-eye daisy. “These nectar–filled flowers fuel the insects which we are so reliant upon.”

Earlier on in the season there were orchids; later there will be thistles and knapweeds to entice butterflies. There’s also hardly any grass at all here compared to the hundreds of acres I passed on my drive from West Yorkshire.

“We can’t ever get back to a countryside of the 1930s,” says Paul. “We wouldn’t be able to feed ourselves for a start and making a living from the rural economy would be harder than it is already, but an organisation like Buglife can make a difference.”

The charity can offer advice, on occasion it can help find additional funding for projects and can, in these days of amassing ‘points’ for inclusion into agri-environment schemes, support landowners do more for conservation without necessarily losing out on income.

“I’m clear though,” he says. “We do really need to make some big changes as well. Doing lots of little things is good, but we need to put some of that 97 per cent back. At Buglife we want to expand our networks and work with as many landowners as possible to explore what more can be done.”

Walking through the meadow, as Paul tells me how later this year, the organisation is also hoping to employ a farm advisor, a Common Blue butterfly flits past.

“There are things we can all do to improve the situation even if we don’t happen to live on a B-Line,” says Paul. “Just look at roadside verges for instance, which are rich with ox-eye daisies and buttercups.

“We are planning to work with the Highways Agency, but even councils and local authorities cutting back on verge maintenance and mowing can make a huge difference to the amount of flowers there are, even if their original motive is not for conservation reasons.”

So should we all cut the grass less?

“Yes, why not, let the grass grow a little. Leave the dandelions and the daisies alone and do less work. Urban environments are so important these days. For some bumble bees, the mosaic of habitats in our gardens is more attractive than the ‘proper’ countryside - and I do like the idea of justifying working less as being better for wildlife.”

As the sun comes out and begins to burn off the morning dew, swallows and swifts fly low over the meadow, picking off the insects that are just taking wing. Below, a few bumble bees, some with red back ends, others creamy, are fuss about in the clover heads.

Elsewhere, amongst the bright white petals of the ox-eye daisies are scores of little insects, largely unseen and unloved and there is an occasional hum of a bumble bee emerging from a yellow rattle flower. Its buzzing has dislodged the pollen and it’s a little dusty, but well fed.

Modern agriculture may be here to stay, but thanks to the work of Buglife it should be possible to preserve these vital pockets of wildlife.