Big, noisy, but elusive and critically endangered – After first British sighting of a Mole cricket in decades Buglife calls for a national recovery plan
Mole crickets are one of Britain’s biggest and most enigmatic insects. They used to occur widely on damp meadows, sandy places and even potato fields across the UK, (“local, ….chiefly in the south” said Malcolm Burr in 1897) but by the 1960s Mole crickets were rare and restricted to river valleys in South England. Reports of the animal then dwindled to a trickle of records, usually from imports in compost or pot plants from overseas, and in 1987 it was declared as Endangered in the UK.
Male Mole crickets create sound chambers in their burrows, and on warm nights from April onwards they churr loudly to attract a female, who despite their large size – 5 cm long – can fly in to find a mate. The call of the Mole cricket was the inspiration for its old English names of Jarr-worm (as in Nightjar) or Eve-churr.
By this millennium, without a confirmed sight or sound of a wild Mole cricket for decades, most entomologists had decided that the animal was extinct. Although distant churrs and second hand reports were eagerly chased down by those hoping to rediscover a last population.
Then in 2014 entomologist and author Paul Brock and sound recordist Brian Harrison heard at least four males calling in the heart of the New Forest, an area rich in historical records and distant from gardens and garden centres. Despite a small number of suspected occurrences in the New Forest dating back to 2003 confirmation was still needed that these animals were thriving successfully. This spring Paul Brock returned with his sister Helen and Forest Keeper Jonathan Cook to undertake further surveys. While listening to churring males and observing their burrows Helen spotted a 5 cm long male above ground. It was caught and a sample was taken so that the DNA can be referenced to old UK and continental specimens. This operation required a licence from Natural England as it is a fully protected species. The Mole cricket was released, back into what is now thought to be a UK population at least 20 animals strong.
More potentially suitable areas of the Forest are now also being surveyed.
“This rediscovery is extremely exciting and positive news at a time when so many insects are disappearing. We must make sure that the sound of the mole cricket is again heard across our landscapes, it is essential that a Species Recovery Plan is drawn up – this can’t be another swan song.” urged Matt Shardlow, Chief Executive of Buglife.
This is not the only endangered cricket in Britain, in recent years the Field cricket and Wart-biter crickets have both come close to extinction, but both have benefitted greatly from a Species Recovery Programme run by Natural England, this has involved captive breeding and the successful introduction of the animals to suitable sites. In Scotland the Bog-bush cricket was only saved after a Buglife campaign meant that a planned landfill dump was not built on its last home.