The search for Britain’s rarest beetle

Monday 9th January 2012 and the first field visit of the year — in search of Britain’s rarest beetle, Brachinus sclopeta. At about 6 mm long, the streaked bombardier beetle is hardly going to cause many heads to turn, but is a charismatic and pretty little thing. When I turned over a square of roofing felt on a derelict site near the Thames Barrier in June 2005, and one scurried away under the bright sun, my heart soared. Instantly recognizable, painfully beautiful and mythically rare, this was my equivalent of what Simon Barnes brilliantly described in How to be a Bad Birdwatcher, as his avocet moment.

Although immediately identifiable because of its pretty colours and markings, very little was known about this insect’s occurrence in Britain. It was always reported in the old beetle monographs as “doubtfully British”, “said to have been captured” or “reputed to have been taken”. Like it was a unicorn or something. It might have been found in Devon. Or Norfolk. Who knows. In an almost comical example of the parlous state of early 19th century invertebrate recording, J.F. Stephens, one of the founding fathers of British entomology, wrote of the single specimen in his huge collection “I rather think mine came from Hastings”. Pathetic really.

The last vaguely reliable sightings were probably from Southend (Essex) in about 1820, and Margate (Kent) in 1830. For 150 years it remained a fascinating, but enigmatic insect, until an old specimen was unearthed in the National Museums of Wales in 1985, labelled ‘Beachy Head, 1928’. This is likely to have been the last time this beetle was seen alive in the British Isles.

But in 2005, there they were, dozens of them, amidst piles of bulldozed rubble and twisted metal, on a most unprepossessing brownfield site, long derelict and abandoned. Ordinarily such a find might raise the spirits. Brownfield sites are often alive with strange and unusual insects, including many nationally scarce and even red data book species. But, as ever, the shadow of destruction loomed; the site was due for imminent development — more luxury flats with a river view.

The site is now razed, crane gantries tower over it and the first rather brutal-looking department blocks have been built. But the beetle might still be hanging on. Because, believe it or not, this is perhaps the smallest nature reserve in the country, just for a beetle:

Britain’s smallest (and ugliest?) nature reserve.

Before the land was cleared, the developers were cajoled into creating a mound of the same bulldozed rubble, crushed brick and concrete with a bit of topsoil, in which the beetles were living. They even fenced it off. There is no interpretation board though.

It’s just an overgrown heap of rubble.

Then, on Friday 5th October 2007 assorted volunteers and eco-oddbods met to try and mount a beetle translocation. Finger-tip searching in the scratchy concrete-impregnated root-thatch of the donor site eventually yielded 61 specimens of B. sclopeta. They were identified, counted, checked, photographed, lovingly handled, then duly released, like Elsa the lion, back into the wild. It made headline news. I wrote a short piece for London Wildlife Trust’s Wild London (scroll down to page 13).

The mound remains today, though looking rather sad behind its cluttered fence and in the mounting shadow of the building developments all around. It will need the occasional cut to prevent the herbage getting too dank and dense. And, amazingly, the beetle was still there in May 2010 when I shinned over the chainlink to have a quick look. I was relieved to dismiss the cynic in me, which sometimes wondered if our ‘translocation’ had really been an ‘eradication’.

Now move on to 9 January 2012 and I am back again, to see what is going on. Because things are happening to Brachinus sclopeta. It has been found at another site. Just across the A1020 North Woolwich Road, the similarly derelict Silvertown Quays are to be developed. And, guess what, the streaked bombardier is living in another mound of bulldozed rubble less than 250 metres from where I found it 7 years ago.

It looks like the right sort of rubble heap.

So translocation is in everyone’s mind again. Perhaps some mounds of bulldozed spoil can be sculpted into a series of rough tumuli, or maybe longbarrows. They will have to be out of public view and out of reach, they are …<hushed tones>…contaminated, with heavy metals. I’m sure the beetle doesn’t mind.

Arguably, Brachinus sclopeta, may not yet qualify as Britain’s rarest beetle. It has, after all, been actually found recently. There are plenty of others that are still missing for years, presumed extinct. But, though I ripped my finger-tips raw in the sharp brick dust and crushed concrete, on both sides of the A1020 yesterday, I could not find it. I worry we don’t have much time. Work is due to start on the site in a few weeks. This population of streaked bombardiers may yet be eradicated. Watch this space.

One response to “The search for Britain’s rarest beetle

  1. There could be rare creatures – insects and others – lurking around every corner but how would we know? I, like most people, don’t have a clue what I’m looking at when I see something scuttling around in my garden or elsewhere. Occasionally I spot something I’ve never noticed before but identifying it is very difficult even in this age of Google!

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