Sound of summer in South Downs saved as conservationists create new field cricket colonies

The South Downs remains the last bastion in the UK for the field cricket, known for that quintessential ‘cheep, cheep, cheep’ sound of summer.

Thursday, 2nd May 2019, 3:45 pm
Updated Thursday, 2nd May 2019, 3:48 pm
South Downs National Park rangers Kate Dziubinska and Charles Winchester, working as part of the task force to rehome field crickets

To save this iconic species from extinction, conservation groups have joined forces to fight to protect it by building six new colonies across Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire.

A task force, working under special licence, has been carefully capturing and transferring small numbers of male and female pairs to new heathland sites, an extremely special habitat that is even rarer than the rainforest.

Mike Edwards, an entomologist with expert knowledge, said: “The field cricket is a remarkable, flightless insect that has really been in trouble for the last century due to changes in land use and forestry reducing its heathland habitat significantly.

South Downs National Park rangers Kate Dziubinska and Charles Winchester, working as part of the task force to rehome field crickets

“It’s a creature that is synonymous with the South Downs, having inspired the great 18th century naturalist Gilbert White to write of the ‘field-crickets calling on the edges of the heaths of Surrey and Sussex’ in his diaries.

“This southern tip of England is really its only stronghold in the British Isles. The South Downs is right at the northern extremity of the range of the field cricket, which is more common in sunnier climes such as Spain.

“The species has been extremely vulnerable for many years but our continued efforts over the past 25 years are leading to a slow recovery.

“Ultimately, we want to make the field cricket populations more robust by extending and joining patches of habitat, as well as starting new populations by releasing crickets on restored heathland. We hope setting up these new colonies will further improve the chances of this fascinating little insect.

The field cricket. Picture: Gillian Pullinger

“Its distinctive shrill will always be the sound of summer and it would be a crying shame to ever lose it. As a native species to heathlands, increased populations will also have a knock-on effect of helping the entire eco-system and restoring these beautiful heaths to their former glory.”

Just 30 years ago, the species was isolated to just 100 field crickets on one site in West Sussex.

There has been a remarkable comeback, largely thanks to volunteers, working in association with landowners, the Natural England Species Recovery Project, London Zoo, the RSPB and the Back from the Brink project, but the field cricket remains one of the most threatened insects in the UK and setting up new colonies is vital for its long-term survival.

During two translocation days recently, volunteers and staff from partner organisations carried out ‘tickling’, a delicate exercise where the creatures were tempted to leave their burrows and carefully captured for rehoming.

Sarah Quantrill from Sussex Wildlife Trust and Steyning Downland Scheme with a field cricket

The exercise was successful and scientists will now be carefully monitoring the progress of new colonies.

The project is being spearheaded by two National Lottery Heritage funded projects, Back from the Brink, lead by the RSPB, and Heathlands Reunited, which is working with the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

The field cricket is a protected species and all conservation work is being carried out under licensed supervision. Disturbing protected species without a licence is a criminal offence.

Field cricket expert Mike Edwards, an entomologist and director of Edwards Ecological and Data Services