Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Natural enemies

Today I am not feeling as enthusiastic as usual about the natural world. I spent much of this morning in the vegetable patch, resowing rows of carrots and peas that had succumbed to the ravages of nature. A cold, wet spring, followed by a grey, humid June, has meant seeds were slow to germinate, and easy prey to slugs and snails when they did eventually break the surface. Lines of tiny, ferny carrots were reduced to the odd, sad singleton, like lone spruce trees standing weakly in a swathe of felled timber. The peas looked equally miserable, waiting limply for the grim axemen to reduce them to stumps. I blame climate change.

And while my plants were being consumed by molluscs, I was being eaten by midges - the infamous Culcoides impunctatus - all revelling in the blanket of still, sticky air that hung over the village today. They are bad this year. The same wet spring and damp June that put paid to my vegetables has given them just the conditions they thrive in. Try as I might I can't find it in my heart to love this particular form of wildlife. Their bites leave me with large, itchy scarlet lumps that persist for weeks, looking like some mediaeval plague victim.

Even more galling, it seems that these particular midges have few natural predators. Birds, bats, insectivorous plants, all consume a few, but midges are not a key food source for any of our native wildlife, according to a paper written for Scottish Natural Heritage:

'It's likely that in the past when Scotland was mostly forested midge numbers were much lower than they are today. But following the loss of trees the increased water content of the soils provided the opportunity for the midges to proliferate. If this theory is correct it could explain why there are no species which take advantage of the huge number of midges.'

It probably also helped that as the forest came down, cattle, sheep and deer populations rocketed, giving this consummate opportunist ample food sources with which to raise its multitudinous children. A 2m square of damp, sheltered land can apparently support 500,000 midge larvae. It's now estimated that hundreds of millions of pounds of revenue is lost to Scotland each year due to midges - driving away workers and tourists alike.

So it seems that those wishy-washy, wildlife-friendly goals of reforesting the hills, considering reintroducing wolves (which would keep down the deer population), and reducing the level of grazing on our mountains, which conservationists have been banging on about for years, might also reduce the midge problem, and make the country millions of pounds richer.

It would also make me much happier on dreich June mornings.

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