Spugs

Sparrows are the loose change of the birding world. Unremarked and undervalued they gather in the neglected pockets of our townscape where their busy lives attract little notice. Yet this spring they have given me more pleasure than almost any other bird.

The yard outside my kitchen window is part of the well between two rows of terraced houses. Beyond the fence is a confusion of alleyways, lean-tos and flat roofed sheds. From upstairs you can see the Ivy that has swallowed the asbestos roof of a neighbouring  outbuilding; Elder has found purchase in a crack in the concrete by some bins next door and produced a stunted tree that in May and June puts out a creamy froth of flowers. A Hop has scrambled from an abandoned garden further down and run riot over the expanse of a corrugated bin store. Gulls stare down into this urban valley from the rooftops. From first light the joyous chirruping of Sparrows fills the space. 

House Sparrows are red-listed birds. According to the BTO their numbers have declined by over 70% since the 1970s.  Much of this can be put down to loss of habitat. Today – like typhoid, unemployment, and drug-dealing – they tend to thrive in areas of social deprivation. They love unkempt gardens that are strangers to pesticides. Undulating clay pan-tiles that offer access to roof spaces. Cracked concrete where rainwater gathers and weeds and invertebrates thrive. Unmodernised run-down buildings are prime sparrow real-estate. Redevelopment is all too often their nemesis. Building regulations usher in plastic mesh to keep them out of the eaves. Roofs are dressed with modern interlocking tiles, which offer no access. Weed filled gardens become sterile patios. The inevitable result is that gentrification deprives them of their traditional nesting sites just as surely as neglect offered them a home.

Sparrows are never still. More than any other bird they seem to bustle. The females are slim and agile. The males, despite their diminutive size, have an almost matronly heft. They shoulder their way in and out of the guttering with all the purpose of Hattie Jaques arriving on the ward. They are the comic turns of lockdown, wheeled on to keep the audience happy before the main event.

My own sparrows share the yard with a pair of Dunnock, who were sparrows once – Hedge Sparrows – but after a name change are sparrows no longer. Dunnock are promiscuous birds. They lower the tone like a couple of swingers at a family barbecue. What passes for Dunnock foreplay involves the male pecking at the female’s cloacal opening trying to encourage her to eject any sperm left by a previous amorous male. When he’s satisfied at last his leap onto her is so ungainly that it sometimes leaves him flat on his back. A moment of pure carry-on comedy to follow the sordid preparation.

Inevitably the birding world tends to favour the rare and the exotic, the vagrants from distant lands, the megas. Sparrows don’t really cut it in this company. But the Sparrows don’t give a toss. They’ve got things to do. Nests to build, young to rear, seeds to find. They are the cheery, round-shouldered ambassadors of Here. Sparrows are a reminder that you don’t have to dash up to Fair Isle to see a doomed Desert Wheatear to feel your world enlarged.  Instead you could just pull up a chair near the open back door, pour yourself a glass of wine, and soak up their joyful celebration of the everyday.

The Wheatfen Beetle

Island populations are always vulnerable.  As habitats shrink and populations become isolated they lose resilience. If you want to survive as a species then numbers and geographical reach are your friends.

The Norfolk and Suffolk Broads are home to a number of iconic species which have found a localised foothold in this watery corner of East Anglia. The outrageously lovely Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio machaon) is probably the most recognisable. Britain’s largest butterfly with its black-veined yellow wings and blood-red spots at the base of its swallow tail it looks like a scrap of yellow handkerchief fluttering over the milk parsley. The Norfolk Hawker dragonfly (Aescha isosceles) can be found here too, patrolling the drainage ditches of the grazing marshes like a green-eyed wind-up toy. It shares some of these ditches with Britain’s largest spider, the Fen Raft Spider (Dolomedes plantarius) which has found a stronghold among the water soldier on Carlton Marshes.

But there is another species which has made its home here, less glamorous and less well-known, but no less remarkable. Galeruca laticolis is a small brown beetle barely a centimetre long – a beetle  so unprepossessing  no one has thought it necessary to give it a common name. To point to it you must still revert to Latin.

You can find maps of the range of most of these creatures in the handbooks. For the Swallowtail the area of cross-hatching covers the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads – though there are other isolated colonies on the Humber and the Isle of Wight. (As the climate warms the British sub-species of Swallowtail (britanicus) is threatened by the northward movement of its continental neighbour  (gorganus). If, as seems inevitable, the two species meet and interbreed the unique form of britanicus will be lost.)  The habitat cross-hatching for the Norfolk Hawker shares much of the territory with the Swallowtail, reaching down into the Suffolk broads. This species too is under threat, this time from loss of habitat as rising sea levels bring salt water incursions into the drainage ditches where it lives and breeds. The Fen Raft spider faces a similar threat.

However, you will search in vain for the cross-hatching that delineates the range of Galeruca laticollis. Because effectively this small brown beetle has no range. It is known at a single site in the United Kingdom, a small patch of protected fen and carr in the Yare Valley. You can walk the boundaries of Wheatfen in an hour. And while the beetle is here it would be wrong to say it was easy to find. It is confined not just to this single small site, but to a small area of this single site. It likes creeping thistle. So to locate it you have to seek out patches among the reeds and search the leaf axils.

To confirm your ID you could use this description found on the coleoptera.org website. 

Colour: brownish
Pattern colour: none
Number of spots: none
Leg colour: black


It might charitably be described as unremarkable.

But the fact it is here at all is extraordinary. The whole of the Yare Valley is under threat from rising sea levels. It would take very little to upset the delicate ecological balance of the few square metres of marshland where Galeruca laticollis lives. An exceptionally high tide would probably do it.

We have grown used to the idea of ecological collapse, but all too often the narrative of melting ice caps, acidified oceans and disappearing rainforests operates on a scale that seems overwhelming. The precarious foothold of this little brown beetle has the power to turn a global issue into an intensely local one.  Drill down into the existential crisis that threatens us all and one of the routes which opens up brings you to a small patch of creeping thistle at Wheatfen.