March of the ants
Country Life UK|November 11, 2020
Insects are seldom loved and are often loathed, feared or disregarded, but they are an integral part of our ecosystem. In an extract from his new book, Framing Nature, Laurence Rose joins the effort to save the narrow-headed ant
Laurence Rose

THE biologists B. K. Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson said: ‘Let us not despise the lowly ants, but honour them. For a while longer at least, they will help to hold the world in balance to our liking, and they will serve as a reminder of what a wonderful place it was when we first arrived.’

If conservation means to restore a mutually rewarding relationship between the human and the non-human world, and if this begins with not despising but honouring, then invertebrates present us with a challenge. Few are loved, many are loathed or feared, and all the others —some 40,000 species in the UK and perhaps 10 million worldwide—are simply disregarded.

At 1.11 pm on 26 November 2018 the endangered narrow-headed ant Formica exsecta returned to Bovey Heathfield nature reserve after an absence of fourteen years. Stephen Carroll marked the time precisely: he had for years been one of a very few people to concern themselves with the fate of this little-known species. Until 1846 the narrow-headed ant was unregarded, warranting not even the faint distinction of a name of its own. First described scientifically by Finnish entomologist Wilhem Nylander, it was located near Bournemouth in 1865, and over the following thirty-seven years Britain’s small community of myrmecologists found it in the New Forest, the Isle of Wight, and, in 1902, the extensive heathlands around Bovey Tracey in Devon.

Apart from a small and genetically distinct Scottish population discovered in Speyside in 1909, no population has been found in the UK away from the heaths of the West Country and Hampshire. Even as the species became better known and entomologists were adding new sites to its known range, its decline had begun. Towns were expanding, and the unloved heathland surrounding them was the obvious place onto which they could spread. By 1910, 45 years after the ants were first discovered there, the Bournemouth colonies had vanished.

The Isle of Wight lost its population three years later, both places having been built upon. By 1993 the narrow-headed ant was found in four remaining sites; ten years later one of them, Bovey Heathfield, was earmarked for development. The heath had already been encroached upon on all sides by industrial estates and housing and had shrunk to a 35-acre patch. Six nests were lost as the neglected heath scrubbed over, leaving a single vulnerable colony. Stephen Carroll was among the campaigners who fought to save the remaining remnant of heathland.

The campaigners persuaded the local council to shelve plans for the final destruction of Bovey Heathfield and the land passed into the hands of the Devon Wildlife Trust. It was too late for the narrow-headed ant, though. The final colony disappeared in 2004, leaving a single remaining English population at nearby Chudleigh Knighton Heath.

‘Every year some piece of heathland in the country gets damaged or destroyed by fire. Imagine if a fire ripped through Chudleigh,’ said Stephen. ‘We have to make Chudleigh as good as it can be, and start experimenting with moving nests back into former areas. The problem is, we know very little about this species, so we’re now studying its ecology, population structure, even taking a few nests into captivity, to learn what we can before it’s too late.’

It was September 2019, and I was visiting the project for the second time. My first visit was the previous October, a few weeks before Stephen supervised the removal of five nests from Chudleigh Knighton to Bovey. Chudleigh Knighton Heath is a Devon Wildlife Trust reserve and is a fragment of the landscape that once stretched for miles across an area known locally as the Bovey Basin.

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