I’ve just finished two evening of bat transect surveys near Swindon, covering farmland that unless something miraculous happens (eg the discovery of a very large colony of very rare orchids or very rare bumblebees, or a ‘buried just below the surface’ vast munitions dump) will soon be concreted over and turned into yet another block of one of the country’s fastest growing towns.
On a transect survey you basically walk along a pre-determined route stopping at pre-selected points for eg five minutes, and log whatever it is you’re looking for: in this case bats, using a Duet bat recorder which converts their ultrasonic clicks into audible sound. The idea is that by finding out what uses the site, when the developers come to build over yet more habitat they might leave the odd hedgerow used by commuting Pipistrelles, or the pool hunted over by whatever species is in the area. It’s called mitigation: take away most of the good stuff and leave the odd sliver because, you know, we all like wildlife and that’s the law anyway (unless George Osborne gets his way and removes these ‘barriers to development’)…
The surveys started 30 minutes before sunset, so it was still light. Both evenings were fairly cool, but should have been warm enough to bring out insects and the bats that feed on them. The habitat, mainly rough pasture with hawthorn hedge boundaries, small streams, and the occasional clump of mature sallow, looked pretty good – but the results were extremely telling, and perfectly reflect the conclusion of the State of Nature Report released (coincidentally) today: I saw virtually no bees or hoverflies, very few large moths (scanning by torchlight after dark), and recorded virtually no bats (a handful of Pipistrelles and one or two Noctules). I saw one or two Roe Deer, a few Rabbits, heard one or two Blackcaps and a Whitethroat, but to all intents and purposes this part of once rural Wiltshire is practically devoid of wildlife. It was if a clean-up crew had gone in prior to the survey and removed anything that might have slowed down the construction companies queued up and ready to pour their concrete.
It reminded me that a while ago conservation organisations began talking about the ‘splat test’ – an informal way for drivers of noting how many insects are about in the evening by looking at how many get splattered against windscreens and licence plates. The common question that results is this: when did you last need to clean your windscreen of splattered insects? Five years ago? Ten years? Fifteen or twenty? I can’t remember personally, but it was a LONG time ago…
Does it matter whether we’re NOT wiping out insects with our cars? Hell, yes. Our roads cut right through the heart of our farmland and woodlands. They’re actually usually quite good routes for insects too. High hedges keep any wind down, the hedges themselves provide sites for insects to feed and breed, and while the very best sites may be well away from traffic-heavy areas insects used to be so abundant and ubiquitous that it was impossible to go anywhere without driving through clouds of them.
That simply doesn’t happen now. Powerful insecticides are routinely used on farmland and in our gardens, councils mow down roadside vegetation when insects most need it, our climate is changing (if cool, wet springs become the norm our insect life and the wildlife that feeds on them are all but done for), and the current government seem hell-bent on pursuing a ‘development is all’ policy with almost complete disregard for wildlife habitats.
So back to the transect survey. I appreciate that it’s not scientifically valid to claim that from two evenings of surveying any accurate conclusions can be drawn about what the state of wildlife really is on the south-west side of Swindon. Perhaps it’s just unusually cold this week, I wasn’t looking hard enough, or I was looking for the wrong things, but I know – I absolutely know – that if there are no insects on the wing there will be no bats either, if there are no moth larvae to be found birds will struggle to feed their young, and if there are no pollinators there will be far fewer fruits or arable crops.
It may well be (if I’m being extremely generous) that the developers who will flatten what is left of these fields and streams will improve parts of the area by cleaning up the streams, create gardens that householders will fill with plants, and enclose the best sites as ‘nature reserves’ to be managed by local conservationists – but going by what exist just a mile down the road I doubt it, or that would anyway meaningfully restore biodiversity or give our wildlife any sort of respite at all. Yet another area of biologically-devastated farmland will be turned in to biologically-denuded housing estates, yet another tranche of our precious wildlife will be lost to our own crazy and unrestrained growth and ‘need’ to acquire more and more land. Yet another area of British countryside will be turned into yet another suburb of people, roads, vehicles, houses, noise, artificial lighting, and newly-planted non-natives shrubs and trees.
But at least none of these new residents will ever have to clean their windscreens of dead insects…
- Bat Conservation Trust: http://www.bats.org.uk/
- Butterfly Conservation: http://butterfly-conservation.org/
- The Wildlife Trusts: http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/