What’s happened to our insects?
One of Mike Mayhew’s most vivid childhood memories is of his mother preparing Sunday lunch, and specifically the cabbage that accompanied it. The cabbage was subjected to a detailed examination. “She’d wash every leaf individually and look at it closely, because there would be so many caterpillars hiding along the veins. But I can’t remember the last time I found an insect on a vegetable I’ve bought.”
We’ve all grown used to the idea that our supermarket food is clinically pristine but how many of us stop to wonder how this is achieved? There isn’t an army of nimble-fingered workers searching for and removing invertebrates just before food hits the shelves. The insects are simply never there in the first place. Some of this has been achieved via barrier methods, such as fine mesh netting. Far more has been the result of ruthless and indiscriminate application of pesticides.
RSPB blames widespread pesticide use
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has reported that in the UK over 150 different pesticides are used annually, in a quantity that covers all UK farmland ten-fold. Food production of course is important, and most of us prefer our cabbages without an unrequested heavy side-order of insect protein. But the cost of current agricultural practises, to ecosystems and consequently to the future of food production itself, is massive and unsustainable.
There’s a misconception that insects excluded from food crops will just go “elsewhere”. But for over fifty years in the UK we have been removing “elsewhere” from our countryside and towns. Invertebrate numbers are falling catastrophically with huge knock-on effects for species that feed on them such as birds and small mammals, but also for the future of pollinator-dependent food crops themselves.
The dangers of shifting baselines
People like Mike Mayhew are a vital living testimony on what a healthy land looks like. Mike is in his late 80s and is from the last generation that has personally experienced the scale of loss the UK has suffered. He talked of seemingly insignificant scraps of land that were his wandering grounds as a boy in rural Suffolk. They were, he said “nothing special” but the range and numbers of species he described would be the envy of national nature reserves now.
We need to capture the memories of people of Mike’s age, because they are the only accurate testimonies of what this country should be like. I can see that wildlife now is hugely depleted compared with its richness when I was at primary school. But I was a child of the 1970s and the damage was already extensive by then. People like Mike are a potent, living link to a better past and can provide us with the true vision of what we should be aiming for.
I asked Mike when he saw the biggest negative changes taking place. “It was the 1960s and 70s” he said, without hesitation. “When they ripped out all the hedgerows”. These vital diverse habitats providing shelter and food for countless species were grubbed up wholesale, often with government or European Union subsidies. The UK has lost nearly 120,000 miles of hedgerows since 1950.
But Mike pointed out it wasn’t just the physical loss of the blackthorn, hawthorn and other shrubby gloriously untidy hedge veterans themselves that drove biodiversity loss. It was the collateral loss of the plants in the earth under and around them, that had previously been safe from the plough and the combine harvester. The loss of the weedy bits of ground, with their undervalued flora providing food – the last “elsewhere” to which our beleaguered invertebrates could retreat – was a devastating blow.
The decline had started earlier. We tend to romanticise the Dig For Victory campaign of the Second World War but it resulted in destruction of almost all the flower-rich pastureland that had developed over hundreds of years, and set the psychological background for increasing intensification of agriculture. The relentless drive for short-term efficiency at all costs has created the ruthless spiral which now is leading us to possible ecosystem collapse and the destruction of the very systems on which agriculture really depends.
Doing our bit
I asked Mike what he thought we could do to reverse the decline. I expected him to talk of regenerative agriculture, improved protection for nature, the fight against climate change. Instead, he simply said “Nothing. It’s too late. And people don’t care.”
I was momentarily taken aback and depressed, until I looked around his North Norfolk garden. It’s small and at first glance looks conventionally well-cared for. But there’s a little track through the border created by the hedgehogs, wandering out from the house he installed for them, to eat any slugs lingering by his wildlife pond. The ivy and climbers are alive with fledglings, making their first flights from the bird boxes he installed. There’s a low dead-hedge and behind it a chaotic tumble of wildflowers – weeds, glorious weeds – thrumming with insects.
We can all create space for weeds, whether in our gardens, or in our public spaces. We can all engage with policy makers at multiple levels – parish council to central government, private and public sector – to tell them we are onside with the untidy road verge, the wonky carrot, the unmown churchyard. We can let the dandelions set seed on our lawns, and tolerate some damage to our cabbages because we can’t have the butterflies if we don’t feed the caterpillars. We may despair, but we can still be more like Mike.