Britain’s biggest beetle is under threat

images

In search of stag beetles

Male stag beetles (Lucanus cervus) fighting over a mate

Stag beetles used to be as much part of a British childhood as the Chopper bike and power cuts.

But now numbers are falling in many parts of the UK, with loss of woodlands thought partly to blame.

The People’s Trust for Endangered Species wants the public to record encounters with Britain’s biggest beetle to find out how many are left.

Amid concern that modern children have become disconnected from nature, I took my own kids on a stag beetle hunt.

And, as it turned out, we didn’t have to go too far.

At the park, watching our sons playing Saturday football, a friend mentioned he had found some of the beetles in his garden the previous year.

They had set up home in a pile of logs from an old apple tree.

Beetle spotted

Only an hour or so later he called to say he’d seen a stag beetle crawling down a wooded track not far away.

“It was moving slowly,” he said, “If you get there quickly it might still be there.”

null

After a short time wrestling electronic devices away from my children, we jumped on our bikes and cycled a few streets away to where the beetle had been spotted.

It was much bigger than the beetles I remember from my childhood – with a distinctive shiny chestnut-brown back and antler-like jaws.

“Is it still alive?” my daughter asked.

We weren’t sure. Marooned at the side of the path, it was frozen either in death or in fear.

We tickled it gently with a frond of grass to check its vital signs. It turned out to be alive, but dozy.

So we photographed it to send to the charity, then left it to get on with its own business.

Keen to find out if our fortuitous find was a one-off, I called Laura Bower, conservation officer of the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species.

There have been massive declines in the UK, she said, but in some parts of England the insect is hanging on.

Stag beetles are relatively widespread in southern England, and are also found in the Severn valley and coastal areas of the south west.

Elsewhere in Britain, they are rare or extinct.

Deadwood

“It’s stable in England as far as we can tell – the range hasn’t changed but it is hard to give accurate numbers,” she said. “This is a really important key population which is why we want to find out as much as possible about it.”

Loss of habitat is one factor in the beetle’s decline as well as the trend to have pristine gardens.

Clearing up dead wood and digging up stumps is bad news for stag beetles, as their larvae spend years living in rotting wood before emerging for a few brief weeks of life in the outside world.

“People want tidy, low maintenance gardens so there aren’t those wild areas you used to have,” said Bower.

“We really want the public to record sightings so we can keep an eye on them. If they can leave dead wood or put a log pile in, that would be good too.”

So have my children rekindled their fascination with nature?

The tablets still hold sway, but my son has a new impression to add to his repertoire.

He holds both hands to his head, like antlers, and shouts: “I’m a stag beetle!”

Follow Helen on Twitter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *