Paul's Column: how insect decline could spell the collapse of the ecosystem

12 February 2019

It’s human nature to concentrate on today’s problem rather than tomorrow’s.  At a national level today’s problem is clearly Brexit, but tomorrow’s problem is a global problem – the destruction of our environment and all that goes with it.

Given the Brexit crisis is likely to last for years, the worry has to be that the impending environment calamity is going to fail to receive the attention and action it most desperately needs.

The latest environmental wake up call came on Monday with the publication of a scientific review that concluded we are on course for a catastrophic insect decline that risks a total collapse of the global ecosystem.

The speed of the decline is frightening.  Ten years from now we will have lost a quarter of our insects, in 100 years it will be all of them.  Love them or loathe them, human beings cannot survive without insects for they sit at the start of the food chain as the food supply for birds and animals, which are in turn invaluable to us.

What’s going on?  The main culprit is intensive agriculture and especially the heavy use of pesticides. However urban sprawl and climate change are also having a significant impact.

Butterflies, moths and bees are in steep decline.  For example, the number of common butterfly species fell by 58% on farmland in England between 2000 and 2009.  Remember the positive blood bath of insects on the front of your car after a drive on a summer’s day? Not so today.

With the alarm raised we are beholden to act.  We successfully addressed the hole in the ozone layer and we have managed to clean up our rivers and coasts from high levels of pollution.

A good place to begin is in your own garden. Start by ending the use of all pesticides and instead introduce plants that attract beneficial insects, those crawling and flying creatures such as ladybirds whose diet includes the pests that might attack your prize roses such as aphids. 

Build a bughouse out of twigs, wood chips, rolled up paper, leaves etc such that you create lots of nooks and crannies.  A pile of logs left to slowly rot away is another way of creating a food source for insects.

Plant a wide variety of attractive plants that flower at different times of the year, providing a sustained supply of nectar and pollen.  Lavender is much loved by bees, smells great and its dense hedge-like properties are useful at trapping particles emitted by exhaust fumes.

If you would like to see a range of birds in your garden, then increase the diversity of the food supply. More insects will mean more birds. 

Beyond our gardens wider land use and land management becomes key.  In our quest for ever cheaper food agro-industrial farming methods have laid waste to the biodiversity on farms around the world.  Yet at the same time, like candles in the dark, best practice is halting and reversing this decline.

Agroforestry, where trees are inserted into the farming landscape, is an excellent example bringing benefits in both tropical and temperate regions of the world.  We don’t have much agroforestry in the UK, but across Europe at least 6.5% of agricultural land has trees consciously added. This way forward could increase the bug population at a stroke.

With urban sprawl a contributing factor to insect extinction, our cities and towns need to go up and not out, hence more of us will have to sign up for high level living.  Traditionally our tallest buildings have been made from concrete and steel but the manufacture of both these products is a key contributor to climate change. 

Thankfully the arrival of engineered timbers that are as strong as steel and concrete mean we can now build at height in wood; 18 storeys completed in Vancouver and 24 storeys currently being built in Vienna and a satisfactory eight storeys behind the Central Railway Station in Newcastle.  Timber stores carbon so building in wood is a win-win in the battle against climate change. Plus it is beautiful to live in.

That the creepy crawlies need our help is self-evident, but are we wise enough to realise that without them we too will be helpless?

Do you think the North East needs its own voice in the EU exit negotiations?

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