Pollinators

comma butterfly and honeybee on devil’s bit scabious

Insects pollinate 80% of plants. We rely on insect pollinators for the food we eat and the air we breathe. Yet pollinating insects are in trouble with population crashes being reported in two thirds of our insect pollinator species.

Much of our work across the Yorkshire Dales recognises the importance of pollinating insects, not only the role they play in pollinating plants but also how they contribute to food webs (i.e. by being eaten by birds, bats, fish, amphibians, reptiles etc). Healthy numbers of pollinators are critical to the health of our habitats and the natural environment.

Insects such as this red admiral often congregate on flowering ivy as nectar sources in the autumn can become scarce.
Red admiral on ivy flower
Insects such as this red admiral often congregate on flowering ivy as nectar sources in the autumn can become scarce.

The decline in pollinators has been driven by agricultural intensification and loss of habitat through infrastructure development, housing and industry. Since the 1940s a drive to increase agricultural productivity has resulted in the loss of 97% of our flower rich grasslands and this loss of habitat has driven serious declines in butterflies, bees, and other insects. This can be difficult to visualise but if you are old enough to remember back to the 1970s and 1980s or even further back you will recall that a long road journey would cover the front of your car in dead and dying insects. How often is that the case now? By comparison it rarely happens.

The large skipper butterfly; its caterpillars thrive on the cock’s-foot grass.
large skipper butterfly on grass
The large skipper butterfly; its caterpillars thrive on the cock’s-foot grass.

In the Dales we are doing our bit to try to reverse this trend, although on some workdays we are still eaten alive by midges! At Hudswell Woods we have been working with Buglife under their B-lines initiative that aims to rejuvenate and link the remaining fragments of grassland that survive and create a network of pollinator friendly habitat across the UK. As you can imagine some of the insect species that thrive in grasslands are not able to travel long distances and we’ve realised that certain populations of insect need to be linked to each other to maximise their chances of survival, not only in terms of genetic viability but also because climate change is forcing populations to move and find new habitats.

Emerging early in spring this red-tailed bumblebee makes the most of flowering bugle.
red-tailed bumblebee on bugle
Emerging early in spring this red-tailed bumblebee makes the most of flowering bugle.

Across the Dales we are working with our tenant farmers to find ways we can optimise habitat for pollinators. At Hudswell Woods this involves managing grassland so that there is an abundance and diversity of wild flowers and grasses, especially as many pollinators have preferred food plants and their survival may be linked to one or two particular species.

Often hated by land-owners, thistles are in fact an excellent source of nectar and pollen, in mid summer they are alive with insects such as this ringlet butterfly.
Ringlet butterfly on creeping thistle
Often hated by land-owners, thistles are in fact an excellent source of nectar and pollen, in mid summer they are alive with insects such as this ringlet butterfly.

Leaving areas of grassland and scrub undisturbed is also important so that insects can nest and they have suitable habitat to overwinter. Scrubby field corners, wide hedgerows and woodland edges are excellent for this as they combine high levels of sunshine with sheltered conditions and they are often rich in brambles, ivy, honeysuckle and thistle, all of which are beneficial to insects. Where possible grassland is lightly grazed and if cut it is often managed as a hay crop. In the Dales we have some of the best surviving hay meadows in the UK and on a warm summer’s day these are alive with the sound and movement of pollinators at work. Compare these rough pastures and hay meadows with a field that is cut for silage three times a year and it’s easy to see why pollinators prefer habitat that is less intensively managed. It’s this type of management that we are championing as it is perfect for pollinators and it offers more space for nature.

Traditionally managed hay meadows are packed with different flower and grass species, perfect habitat for pollinators.
a species rich hay meadow
Traditionally managed hay meadows are packed with different flower and grass species, perfect habitat for pollinators.