Disappointment turned to delight when RSPB scientists realised lockdown rules may have halted plans to help bolster precious field cricket populations, but they proved previous attempts to safeguard this endangered species were a success.
Although most of us are familiar with the chirping of a field cricket, they are so rare in the UK many people will have learnt what they sound like from films and have never heard them in the wild.
Government restrictions meant this year conservation charity RSPB had to abandon plans to translocate field crickets to newly restored habitat on two RSPB reserves; part of the National Lottery funded Back from the Brink programme (due to end in 2020) to protect some of the UK’s most threatened species from extinction.
But when wardens carrying out fire and livestock checks at RSPB Pulborough Brooks and Farnham Health reserves this month heard field crickets singing at the release sites, RSPBs ecologists realised it was the first proof of successful breeding. With an annual life-cycle, any crickets heard calling this year must be the offspring of ones released in previous years. It is only because the charity couldn’t translocate more field crickets this year scientists could confirm the previous translocations are working.
For the first time the RSPB is able to confirm the project a success, with the start of a new breeding population at Pulborough Brooks and an extended population at Farnham Heath.
Once a much-loved soundtrack to a summer evening, the chirping of field crickets was heard in many heath and grasslands in south-east England. However, changes in land management and habitat loss during the last century saw the UK’s population of field crickets declined to fewer than 100 by the 1980s, all found at only one location. Although they are on the road to recovery field crickets are still officially classed as Vulnerable and one of the UK’s most threatened and protected species.
Following 25 years of hard work funded by Natural England’s Species Recovery Programme, field crickets are now found in eight locations across Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire. The Back from the Brink project started in April 2017 and aimed to establish a new colony at Pulborough Brooks as well as a second colony at Farnham Heath.
Conservationists need a special licence to move young field crickets, known as nymphs, to a newly restored habitat using a technique called ‘tickling’ to entice nymphs to leave its burrow. Twelve nymphs are translocated at a time, with six of each sex to ensure no lonely hearts.
Jane Sears, RSPB Senior Ecologist said: “There is something quite evocative about the soft chirping of a cricket on a warm summer’s evening. Unfortunately with field crickets on the verge of extinction we almost lost their song.
“So it was with a heavy heart we cancelled our final chance to bolster the population with the Back from the Brink project, unsure of how our previous attempts to create new breeding sites had fared.
“The news that our new colonies are doing well has given us hope the species can be brought back from the brink.
“We have seen how, with the right conditions, the species can thrive.”
2020 marks the last year of the Back from the Brink programme but the RSPB will continue to monitor crickets as part of legacy work.
To learn more about RSPB work to protect this species visit the Back from the Brink website here and follow @NatureBftB.