These past few mild days have brought the heather beetles back out of hibernation, and we’ve been receiving reports about beetles “on the move” at the Heather Trust. I made a point of checking the Chayne for beetles two days ago, focusing my finger-tip search on the heather which was so badly damaged during the summer last year. I will admit that I had to search for some time before I found any beetles, but they were certainly present amongst the drinker moth and fox moth caterpillars. It may be that I have missed the bulk of the emerging beetles, or that I was too soon and the ones I found were only the fore-runners. Either way, April is traditionally the time when they emerge from their murky lairs.
On the whole, the beetles I found were clinging to the heather in a fairly inanimate state, but as soon as I touched the leaves, they fell straight off into the deep litter. This is the heather beetle’s chief means of escape, and it is a good one. Even as larvae, they are quick to let go of whatever vegetation they are holding, plummeting down into the dark, mossy litter where they lurk beyond retrieve. I caught three or four adult beetles and am keeping them in a jam jar before ultimately “plastinating” them in resin so that they can be stored in perpetuity. It is surprising how difficult beetles are to come across in person, and many people who have lost thousands of acres of heather to these little pests still have never seen one. It will be useful to have these beetles for game fairs and demonstrations, and the Chayne has provided some volunteers for this purpose.
Without wanting to be alarmist, beetles really seem to thrive after mild, wet springs. The dramatic end to winter 2013 seems to have put a lid on many beetle populations, and last year was one of the quietest on record. The largest outbreak that we received news of at the Heather Trust was approximately 90 acres near Buxton in the Peak District. I am hesitant to say that it was “only” 90 acres, because the damage there has been devastating, but in the context of massive outbreaks covering thousands of hectares, it was quite a quiet year. 2014 threatens to be “all change”, and it may be a good idea to keep an eye out for the small brown beetles as they emerge from their winter cover. It’s not as if it would be possible to stop an outbreak in its tracks even if you do happen to encounter a vast swarm of beetles, but getting used to finding the pests themselves and having an idea where they might be working will give you a head start when the time comes to repair the damage.
You may look pretty daft, but it’s always worth spending a few minutes lying down in the heather on a mild, sunny April day and doing a thorough inspection of a few shoots. Beetles are small (c. 6mm from end to end) and difficult to see. As above, they may drop off the heather and vanish at the slightest disturbance, so move carefully and quietly and try not to cast a shadow on the plants you are studying. Heather beetles occur naturally on moorland across the country, so there is no need to panic if you find one or two – they’re supposed to be there and may well feed some grouse chicks when the time comes. You will know if there is a problem, because heather beetles en masse can resemble a biblical plague to a close observer at “grass-root level”. If you do find lots of beetles and start to have concerns, the Heather Trust is always on hand to provide advice and support. If nothing else, it is very helpful to hear of outbreaks as and when they occur, and the beetle survey is an important means of gathering information –