spotted flycatcher

Last week, I brought a cardboard box in from the outhouse to dismantle and put into the recycling. As I went to pick it up several hours later, a large reddish-brown moth flew out and fluttered against the window. I had to let it out even though I knew that with the temperature dipping towards freezing, it was unlikely to survive. Moths and butterflies have declined by 50% since 1990. The moth snow storms that I used to see in the headlights while driving along quiet country roads in summer are no more; I rarely have to clean squashed insects off my car windscreen. Also gone are the clouds of flying insects that used to cluster around the gas light in my tent. Perhaps if I had caught my moth it and put it in a matchbox, it would have survived until next summer and I would have made a gesture. But I didn’t.

Even if my moth had survived and laid a million eggs, it would have made no difference. The bigger picture is overwhelming. A group of amateur scientists from Germany has just reported the results of a thirty year survey of flying insects caught using Malaise traps in 63 nature reserves throughout the country. The results are shocking: a 75% decline in the biomass of all the flying insects over 30 years; 82% if they just included the summer.

We already knew there has been a dramatic decline in honey-bees (45% since 2010) and butterflies, but this is the first reliable study that has included all flying insects. Flying insects pollinate 82% of flowers and are food for 60% of birds as well as 100% of European bats and many freshwater fish.

Insectivorous birds have also shown a dramatic decline. Spotted Flycatchers always nested in the road where I live, perching on telegraph wires to dive for insects, but it must be 10 years since I last saw one. Cuckoos are specialist feeders; they especially like those big hairy hawk moth caterpillars, like those of the Tiger Moth. I still hear them on the moors a few days each year, but they have disappeared from the valleys. Swifts, those screaming ton-up mobsters that used to race around the village in May and June have also disappeared. It’s the same picture with Redstarts and many of our summer visitors from Africa. Overall, farmland bird numbers have dropped by 55% since the nineteen seventies and numbers of common insectivorous birds such as starlings, swallows, thrushes and warblers have fallen by 35%.

The reason for the decline is almost certainly due to the widespread use of pesticides; that and the increasing amount of land given over to arable and the intensive planting of monocultures. Rachel Carson realised why this was happening way back in 1962 when she wrote ‘Silent Spring’. Meadows of wild flowers at a rarity in Britain now. Instead we have wide swathes of what are essentially poisonous deserts where the insects and the creatures that feed on them cannot survive. Although the German survey was conducted in protected nature reserves, these were surrounded by poisonous agricultural land. Even corridors of hedgerows and wild flowers at field margins have been grubbed out and ploughed over.

Of course, environmentalists will want to know how representative the German study is, though the fact that it was conducted carefully over 30 years and many different sites must suggest the similar results would be seen in other areas and countries employing intensive agriculture. Similar studies should be instigated in other countries, but we can’t afford to wait another 30 years for the results. We have to act now.  It may be that wilder regions in countries, like Scotland and Finland, or islands that employ organic farming methods, might retain their flying insects and have a much more healthy biodiversity.  If so, we will need learn from them.

Could these trends ever be reversed? Should governments just ban pesticides forthwith? Is there a political will? Would it make any difference? How can we protect the environment when there is so much anxiety over rising populations and food security? Notwithstanding that argument, 30% of our crops are pollinated by flying insects.  If that were to fail, we would soon have a food crisis and insufficient resources to rectify it.

Similar arguments apply to marine environments. On the same day that I heard about the German insect study, I also learnt that the proposal of the Tasmanian summit to establish an enormous marine sanctuary in eastern Antarctica has been blocked by Russia and China because they wanted to protect their rights to fish there!

The threat to life on our planet by climate change, intensive agriculture, land clearance, not to mention global conflict, are now too urgent and important to be left to individual nations. We need to establish an international organisation with the authority to legislate on the measures that must to be taken to protect the planet and to hold individual states to account. But I guess things will have to go past the point of no return before politicians have the will to act. We are living in such dreadfully insecure times, I wonder if there is a connection between the threat of environmental disaster and the rise of populism? Is it all a desperate quest for somebody to make it right?