Our magic moments of 2021
Urban wildlife encounters (the enjoyable ones that is, not the ones where a gull steals your chips, or a fox steals your toe) can be like finding a fiver on a grubby pavement. It isn’t simply the sight of a charismatic and intriguing species, the oddity of seeing something breathtaking, cohabiting quite comfortably with us, adds an extra dimension to my love of nature. And few are quite so intriguing as the magnificent (European) Stag Beetle Lucanus cervus. This goliath insect, topping out at a hefty 12cm, is our largest beetle and endangered or extinct across most of England. Worthing, however, along with many coastal areas of West Sussex, is an unexpected haven for Stag Beetles, and over the summer I was lucky enough to have my first close encounter.
The beauty of the moment was that it required no skill or preparation on my part. I left my house one late June evening to walk the dog and there, on the edge of the road, a hop, skip and jump from my front door, was a fierce, but extremely confused adult male Stag Beetle. I’d seen them flying overhead, both in town and at the allotment, but nothing prepares you to be squared up to by those menacing horns from which he derives his name (and which he may attempt to fasten to your dog’s enterprising snout when she tries to investigate). While I’d never normally advocate moving a wild animal (much less an endangered species), I carried him gingerly to our woodpile, knowing that if I’d come along five minutes later, he might well have been flattened by a speeding 4x4. He hung around until dark then took off, with a hum that would make a hornet jealous, into the night-sky.
The decline of Stag Beetles stems, not from a deliberate attempt to eradicate these magnificent creatures, but from a lack of education about their life-cycle. They spend around six years as a grub, snug under the earth, yet are frequently dug up by everyone from landscapers and builders to enquiring pets. Grubs need rotting wood as their main source of food, which we’re less keen to leave lying around than we were in the past. After pupating and emerging as an adult, they have a mere few weeks in which to find a mate until their inability to feed catches up with them. No mature Stag Beetle has ever been found to survive longer than six months and many are crushed on Southern England’s busy highways within days of emerging.
Luckily, a growing enthusiasm for wildlife gardening (with woodpiles topping many of our wish-lists) has given the iconic species a fighting chance, as has an improving understanding of the damage caused by large amounts of insecticides in our soil. But even those without the space or means to build a woodpile m