I’m a murderer. There, I said it. I mean, I did everything I could – with the possible exception of traps positioned, somewhat foolishly, on what were probably badger tracks, they were out of the way, and covered with a well-fitted foil tray lid, millimeters above the ground. Surely, just low slung ground beetles and the like, the targets of my endeavours, would be foolish enough to stumble in? But no, after just the first fourteen traps, Hampshire was five shrews down. On their part, not so shrewd – to be honest, I’m not entirely sure how they got the name.
I am happy to report that my vertebrate catch rate has fallen dramatically since that first fateful day, although the very occasional mouse or frog has fallen foul of my pits of death since then. Some might balk at so much death in the name of conservation, and, to be honest, when faced with it I do. It isn’t particularly pleasant, especially if the victims are less than fresh, and it offends one’s natural sense of compassion towards all living things. I say all, but to be honest the death of hundreds of beetles (the ones I’m supposed to be murdering) is bothering me far less. Something about the ‘otherness’ of invertebrates means they are much less disturbing to me dead than they are alive (when I don’t normally mind them, until they fly or run at me), and since my sample size depends, to an extent, on a good catch, I’m delighted if I lift one of the aforementioned ineffective lids and find the murky blue liquid within teeming with preserved beetles in suspended animation.
If you wanted to think about it in religious terms for some reason, a traditional Christian perspective might help more here than a Buddhist one – given that I hope to bring about the eventual salvation of British biodiversity (my infinitesimally small contribution towards it, anyway) through the sacrificial death of my samples, rather than pushing a broom in front of me whilst I’m out on fieldwork trips. In that famous nonexistent ideal world we like to talk about, the natural environment would be in glowing health and we wouldn’t need to go out there and meddle with it at all. But for the time being, things being messy and broken as they are, I remind myself that I have probably killed more creatures in five years of car ownership than I will through pitfall trapping for a few weeks, so I think I can live with my conscience for now.
I must also add that this ecology business can be pretty deathly work for humans as well. Dawn bird counts, apart from the hour at which the alarm goes off, sound like a bit of a jolly. And they were. But there isn’t much jolly about kneeling in the dirt, inexpertly digging a hole the approximate size and shape of a half-litre plastic cup, through thick clay, tangled bramble roots, and lumps of chalk the size of a baby’s head. I’ve been buzzed at, bitten, scratched and stung, plagued by irritating pollen, singed by the sun, drenched by downpours, tripped by tree roots, and blistered by my trowel. During the middle part of last week, following a little scattering of midge bites, my left elbow swelled up to about twice its normal size, sending throbbing aches along the length of my forearm. Suffice to say, I don’t react well to summer. The shrews are not the only ones suffering in the name of science.
But it isn’t all bad, this invertebrate sampling lark, not all pain, sacrifice and troubling death rates. In fact, some insects are amongst the most attractive creatures you might meet in the English countryside, and being out and about a lot more than usual for July I’ve had a better than normal chance to observe them. Orange spotted longhorn beetles, powerful cruising dragonflies, riots of meadow brown and small white in the fields and hedgerows, or, if you are very lucky (as I was recently), a magnificent male purple emperor gliding down to ground level for a feed, letting off flashes of his brilliant robes with every wing beat. Pretty hard to beat that.
Less conspicuous things can be very beautiful too; in the last week I’ve been appreciating diminutive small skipper butterflies, flitting from bramble flower to bramble flower, and an incredible looking hoverfly with a thorax like polished bronze. I’ve even been growing fonder of the beetles. Most of the ground-dwelling species might be black on first appearance, but they are undoubtedly more handsome than that; some, like the violet ground beetle, have a glinting iridescent sheen on various parts of their anatomy.
Some of these insects, then, are rather wonderful, whether dead or alive. This summer I just might have awakened a deeper interest in them, especially in butterflies – after all, who doesn’t love butterflies? But with the more bothersome of their kind, I’m not sure that I’ll ever be reconciled, not after what the midges did to me. At least I now have an even clearer idea of what I like, invertebrate wise, and what I could very happily live without – and what, as I continue to cast myself as judge of all in the Hampshire woods, I’d quite like to help keep around.