Poor old Gilbert is getting restless. Despite the fact that there is more interest in wildlife than ever before, it seems that most of the so-called conservation organisations are losing interest in species. Instead they prefer to babble on about landscape scale conservation and ecosystem services (whatever they are). Could this be because most of their staff don't have any knowledge about species if they don't have four legs?
This is my attempt to encourage an interest in good old-fashioned natural history.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Some thoughts on a Pondweed Leafhopper

There is of course no such thing as a useless biological record but some are undoubtedly more useful than others. I seem to average one really good record a year these days and I've just had my one for 2017. Having spent most of my spare time so far this winter dissecting moths for other people, I have finally cleared the backlog and been able to make a start on my own specimens.

I started with the plant- and leaf-hoppers as this is a group I want to prioritise in 2018. One specimen keyed to Erotettix cyane, sometimes known as the Pondweed Leafhopper. Now I knew that was a UK Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Species which is known from very few sites so it couldn't possibly be that. I re-keyed it but couldn't make it in to anything else. I had recorded around the pond at this site on one occasion in 2017 but upon checking, I found that this specimen came to MV light several hundred metres from the pond. I sent some photo's to the national recording scheme organiser, asking if he could point out my schoolboy error but instead he confirmed my identification.

Erotettix cyane - the Pondweed Leafhopper
He also pointed out that the most significant feature of this record was not that I had found it at a new site but that it was the first evidence that this species can disperse and therefore potentially colonise new sites. So, a very rare species found at a new site and with some useful additional information about its dispersal ability, happy days, end of story right? Well not quite. I think it is worth examining how this record came to be made.

The first point is that I was moth-trapping and this isn't a moth! If I had ignored all the 'by-catch', the record would never have been made. Another point in favour of the pan-species listing approach. But why was I moth trapping at this site in the first place?

Back in the latter part of 2016, the Senior Ecologist for Sussex Wildlife Trust undertook a process of collating all the records of every species on every Trust reserve. He put all this information in a spreadsheet and offered to send a copy to absolutely anyone who was interested in recording on Trust reserves. What is this heresy? Surely the reserves will be over-run with collectors, twitchers and all manner of other people who are up to no good? Of course not, although such views do seem to be prevalent these days. The reality is that there are very, very few cases in which there is any justification for keeping quiet about where species are found.

Having received my copy of the spreadsheet, I spent many hours studying it, looking at gaps in recording where I could contribute something useful, etc. Like most people, I have a competitive streak. One of the first things that I looked at was which reserve had the biggest species list. Oh dear, it's Rye Harbour. That isn't even in proper (i.e. West) Sussex but in the frozen wastelands of East Sussex. It's virtually in Kent for god's sake! Second place was held by Ebernoe Common. Now that is in proper Sussex and is a reserve that I like and have done some recording on. Worse news was to come when I looked at the family that I know most about; moths. Once again Rye Harbour was in first place with Ebernoe second. This really wouldn't do and I made it my personal mission to get Ebernoe into first place! Ok, it's all a bit pointless and silly but it gave me motivation to go recording at Ebernoe which in turn led to the discovery of a very rare leaf-hopper.

I know that the Trust Ecologist hoped that his initiative would be copied by other conservation organisations but thus far there is very little evidence of this happening. Why is this? I fear that an awful lot of people responsible for nature reserves really don't care what species occur on their sites apart from the 'charismatic mega-fauna', and orchids. Worse still, I am increasingly finding wardens who don't want you to find rare species, especially from 'obscure' groups, because it might complicate their simplistic, text-book management. Don't believe me? Go and tell your local warden that you've found a rare spider, leaf-hopper or moss on their reserve and that it needs a particular type of management and see what reaction you get. Of course there will be some who are delighted and happy to engage with you but there are an awful lot who will be rather less positive. I sincerely hope that this situation will change but the signs are not great at the moment.