British Ponds for British Dragonflies

by | Jul 27, 2009

Any article that includes the line

The dragonfly family has more species than any other mammal

has got to be worth a closer look. And this one, from Saturday’s Guardian, doesn’t disappoint.

Dragonflies in danger of extinction seek sanctuary at new rescue centre
Pollution, pesticides and habitat loss bring dragonflies close to the brink after 325m years

Dragonflies may have hovered and hunted across the planet for the last 325m years, but their modern relatives are staring extinction in the face.

Don’t fear: dragonflies are no more ‘staring extinction in the face’ than they are warm-blooded, hirsuit creatures that bear live young and lactate. They don’t need rescuing. Indeed, there is no ‘rescue centre’.

All that has actually happened in the world to prompt the Guardian’s latest episode of extinction-porn is that the National Trust, the British Dragonfly Society and the Dragonfly Project have got together to open a visitor centre – a place for people to visit to learn about dragonflies – at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. They have issued a press release about it, and have got a TV personality to perform the opening ceremony.

Naturally, the press release contains a few facts and figures to tempt the press. And how better to tempt the press than with a few bleak-looking statistics about how three species of dragonfly have disappeared from Britain since the 1950s and how a third of the regularly-occurring UK species are under threat? (The one about dragonflies being mammals comes straight from the Guardian’s own imagination.) Also naturally, the Guardian has taken these facts and figures and distorted them beyond recognition to spin a tale about the imminent extinction of all dragonflies everywhere in the whole world.

It follows, by definition, that all the species occurring in Britain must be declining, too. Yep, says the Guardian, it’s just that some are declining more spectacularly than others:

the new centre hopes to reverse the decline of the 42 species found regularly in the UK. Conservationists blame the decline on the loss of wetlands, and pesticides and insecticides drifting from farmland […] Some British species are faring worse than others. White-faced darters have seen a signifcant loss and drying out of the bog pools where they live, while the Norfolk hawker’s limited distribution – mostly in the Norfolk Broads – has left it vulnerable to sea level rises and salt water infiltration.

A perusal of the website of the British Dragonfly Society (BDS), however, reveals that many species are increasing in range and/or numbers in the UK. For example:

Aeshna mixta – Migrant Hawker
‘Common and increasing its range. Strongholds in southern England, but now reaching well into northern England and recently appeared in Ireland.’

Anax imperator – Emperor Dragonfly
‘Widespread in southern England and southern Wales; increasing its range northwards’

Brachytron pratense – Hairy Dragonfly
‘Uncommon but increasing its range. Now widely scattered through England, Wales and Ireland but rare in Scotland.’

Libellula fulva – Scarce Chaser
L. fulva is scarce in Britain and is consequently listed under category 3 (scarce) in the British Red Data Book on Insects […] Populations appear to be stable and there is evidence that suggests that it may be expanding its range.’

Orthetrum cancellatum – Black-tailed Skimmer
‘Southern England, parts of Wales and Ireland. Increasing its range northwards.’

Sympetrum sanguineum – Ruddy Darter
‘Resident in south-east England and central Ireland but increasing its range.’

The data provided in the press release come from a report published last year that assessed the conservation status of UK dragonfly species according to criteria set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The last time this was done was in 1987, when six species met the criteria for being classed as rare, vulnerable or endangered. The new report makes it twelve (see Appendix 2). This does not mean, however, that things are twice as bad as they were in 1987, because the two data sets are not directly comparable. That’s because, as the introduction makes clear:

The IUCN Red List categories and criteria have undergone extensive review over the last 20 years. The current Version 3.1 was adopted by the IUCN Council in February 2000 (IUCN, 2001). This revised document has been accompanied by continually improved guidelines on the application of the IUCN criteria (IUCN, 2003; IUCN, 2005: IUCN Standards and Petitions Working Group 2006).

Moreover, despite the Guardian’s determination to extrapolate from the local to the global, endangerment in the UK has little bearing on a species’ vulnerability to extinction. All of the species supposedly ‘under threat’ are also present in mainland Europe – and some extend as far as Africa, Siberia, and even Japan. Only one (Coenagrion mercuriale) is endangered globally.

Likewise, none of the three species that have disappeared from Britain since the 1950s (Coenagrion scitulum, Coenagrion armatum, Oxygastra curtisii) are endangered globally.

And something else that doesn’t get mentioned, by the Guardian or in the presser, is that there have been two additions to the British dragonfly fauna over the same period that three have been lost:

Erythromma viridulum – Small Red-eyed Damselfly
‘Recent colonist (first records 1999). Local but spreading spectacularly through southeast England and the Isle of Wight.’

Anax parthenope – Lesser Emperor
‘Rare but currently annual migrant. First recorded 1996, Gloucestershire; has bred in Cornwall.’

Which adds up to a net loss from Britain of a single species. The colonisations are not, by the way, the result of introductions by humans, but of vagrant populations establishing breeding populations under their own steam. Additionally, there’s a bunch of other species that look poised to colonise our ponds in the near future:

Lestes barbarus – Southern Emerald Damselfly
‘Migrant/Vagrant from Northern Europe, possibly the Netherlands where it has increased recently. First observed in July 2002 in Norfolk. Also in the Channel Islands since 1995.’

Lestes (Chalcolestes) viridis – Willow Emerald Damselfly
‘Vagrant, has bred [possible future colonist(?)]. Widespread on Jersey.’

Sympetrum fonscolombii – Red-veined Darter
‘Fairly frequent migrant, principally to southwest England though scattered records from elsewhere (has reached Scotland). Breeds nearly annually, but colonies seemingly not stable.’

Sympetrum flaveolum – Yellow-winged Darter
‘Irregular migrant but may occur in large numbers (1995, 2006). Has bred after major influxes (e.g. Chartley Moss, Staffordshire, in 1996), but colonies do not persist.’

Dragonflies are strong fliers and, therefore, highly mobile species. They come and they go. As the authors of the 2008 report summarise:

The distribution of a number of Odonata species has changed significantly over the past 20 years. A number of species have increased their range northwards, additional species have been found to regularly breed within Britain and others have lost populations at the edge of their range.

But local extinctions and waves of immigration present a challenge for environmentalism. Because environmentalism is deeply conservative. Environmentalism doesn’t like change. It doesn’t like it when species go extinct, or when they get ideas above their station. Environmentalism, as the Guardian makes clear, would prefer everything to be how it was 325m years ago.


  1. geoffchambers

    They’ve corrected the mammal reference, which leaves an article which could be about the fun to be had visiting a dragonfly sanctuary, but just can’t resist a good worry. This seems the current Guardian ethos, reflecting no doubt a deeper problem among the chattering classes. (It’s not specific to green politics. Look at the art pages. A major work of art can only get a headline if it’s in danger of deterioration, been stolen, bought by a foreigner, or revealed to be a fake).
    This particular leftwing middle class malaise is easy to poke fun at, and the likes of Clarkson and Gill do it with relish. (Hey, wouldn’t it be fun reading Clarkson’s appreciation of dragonflies in flight!) It has its positive sides, saving a wetland or an Old Master for the nation. A useful counterbalance to the Sun and SpikedOnline’s neo-Benthamism. (Sorry, that’s the way we ex-Guardian readers talk).
    If only the environmentalist movement could be rid of its global warming obsession, it could be a useful if marginal force for good. Lots of people devote themselves to good causes without having to feel they are saving the whole planet. Why can’t Greens learn to love dragonflies (or peatbogs, or whatever) without invoking the end of the world? I’m no nearer to understanding.

  2. SJones

    Mr Chambers: The press will always leap on gloom and doom and dastardedly acts. It is what they do.
    Environmentalism is not about the end of the world scenarios. It is about protecting the environment. In the West we enjoy a high degree of environmental protection. Imagine living next door to a chemical plant: you would want, or perhaps demand, strict environmental standards to ensure that you and your family did not wake up one morning enveloped in toxic fumes. I guess too that you would not want to spend your holidays on some litter strewn beach next to a toxic waste dump.

    Most objections to environmental protection come from the big polluting industries themselves, who see it as eating into their profits. Yet in reality it makes economic sense to protect the environment. It is far more costly in the long term to deal with environmental problems.

    Environmental protection is mainstream, it is not the preserve of a few left wing extremists. Just take a look at the legislation in the European Union, for example, that govern environmental practices. Imagine the chaos that would result if they were not enforced.

    And we could go further, we should be moving towards cleaner energy production, greater energy efficiency and reducing environmental problems. We can do that. We are surely intelligent enough to realise that human progress is not possible in a degraded contaminated world, and creative enough to develop new cleaner technologies and lifestyles that reflect this deeper understanding. It is not intelligent behaviour to ruthlessly vandalise nature. The environment is fundamental to our health, well being and prosperity; these things derive directly from environmental health. And those that speak up for its protection are those who recognise human responsibility in regard to the environment and the detrimental consequences of environmental malpractice and irresponsiblity.

    You say that you do not understand the Greens preoccupation with the environment. I do not understand those who regard the natural world as secondary, or even, of no importance, and sneer at those who love and respect nature and work to ensure its protection and continuation.

    From the Melbourne Principles: Adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio 1992

    3. Recognise the intrinsic value of biodiversity and natural ecosystems, and protect and restore them.
    Nature is more than a commodity for the benefit of humans. We share the Earth with many other life-forms that have their own intrinsic value. They warrant our respect, whether or not they are of immediate benefit to us. It is through people’s direct experience with nature that they understand its value and gain a better appreciation of the importance of healthy habitats and ecosystems. This connection provides them with an appreciation of the need to manage our interactions with nature empathetically. Just as humans have the ability to alter the habitat and even to extinguish other species, we can also protect and restore biodiversity. Therefore, we have a responsibility to act as custodians for nature.

  3. geoffchambers

    to SJones #2
    I have absolutely no quarrel with anything you say, except when you attribute to me the statement that I do not understand the Greens’ preoccupation with the environment. I said nothing of the kind. My quarrel is with the Greens’ obsession with global warming. I asked, rhetorically “Why can’t Greens learn to love dragonflies (or peatbogs, or whatever) without invoking the end of the world?”
    A possible answer is that invoking the end of the world gives a sense of importance to what otherwise might seem somewhat nerdish occupations, such as protecting dragonflies, eliminating malaria, or whatever.
    There is a herd instinct aspect to global warming belief which merits more profound psychological analysis than it has received. I see the Global Warming Generation / Green Movement as a Durkheimian case history in anomie. It’s like taking a herd of lemmings to Glastonbury and telling them to have a good time. They mean well, but ..

  4. SJones

    Mr Chambers, what precisely do you mean by `invoking the end of the world´. Do you mean describing extinction events? Well they happen, look at the collapse of fisheries for example and look at the steps being taken to remedy the situation: better environmental management.
    Do you think that we should be more careful about how we manage our resources? Do you think we should be more environmentally aware or not? Your use of the term `herd instinct´implies a lack of awareness, and would appear to be contradictory. If we are waking up to the possible effects of our activity on our atmosphere, how can that be lack of awareness?

    We know full well that we affect our atmosphere adversely. Look at the Montreal Protocol which takes steps to reduce the detrimental effects of CFCs on the ozone layer. Acid rain. Airborn particulates, etc etc. Investigating the consequences of our activities and acting accordingly to reduce adverse effects is both intelligent and responsible. Ignoring or denying consequences is neither.

    Attributing `herd mentality´ to humans falls far short of affirming human intelligence or responsiblity. Presumably you do not include yourself in this category. Presumably you are intelligent and responsible. And aware enough to understand the long term effects of increasing greenhouse gas release into the atmosphere, deforestation, loss of biodiversity through habitat destruction, land and water contamination and other `nerdish´occupations.
    What would those long term consequences be, in your opinion?

  5. geoffchambers

    to SJones #4
    As I said above, my talking about the Greens invoking the end of the world was rhetorical. As this article makes clear, there are many in the media and in politics who can’t even take pleasure in dragonflies without incorporating them into their global warming disaster movie. I don’t understand why you seem determined to catch me out in contradiction.
    My views on conservation, resource management, etc.are a boringly conventional pale green. It’s one of the political success stories of the past 50 years that we’ve got a lot better at cleaning up pollution, protecting endangered species etc. If the Green Party, or other pressure groups want to take credit, so be it.
    When I called protecting dragonflies and eliminating malaria nerdish occupations I was of course being ironical, refering to a theory of mine that the global warming narrative serves in part to give sense to what otherwise might seem thankless tasks. I’ve never done anything as useful as protect an endangered species or combat a fatal disease which kills millions. I imagine that those who do so may sometimes feel discouraged by their lack of success, or lack of appreciation from the world at large. Maybe the AGW hypothesis appeals because it fits their own noble but insufficient efforts into some bigger global picture. Whatever the reason, it seems important to me to separate the very real important concrete tasks associated with environmentalism from the AGW hypothesis, which is at best a failed scientific theory, at worst a pernicious quasi-religious belief system.

  6. SJones

    I am not particularly concerned about `catching you out´! but it was nevertheless contradictory to suggest that growing awareness of how we may be changing our climate is somehow mindless behaviour.

    Sorry, but I do have to point out another contradiction in what you say: “ It’s one of the political success stories of the past 50 years that we’ve got a lot better at cleaning up pollution, protecting endangered species etc.” but you go on to say: “ I imagine that those who do so may sometimes feel discouraged by their lack of success..”

    I agree that the last 50 years have brought spectacular successes in regard to environmental awareness and better practice, so I do not understand why one would need to invoke global warming to validate work done in this area: “ a theory of mine that the global warming narrative serves in part to give sense to what otherwise might seem thankless tasks.” An interesting if somewhat flawed theory Mr Chambers, based as it is on your own muddled premises.

    It is probably more true to say that given the wealth of information from the Earth sciences, there is a growing realisation of the interconnectedness of life on Earth, a kind of globalization in thinking about our Earth system. This is the basis of the science of ecology. Climate change is a global phenomenum and anyone investigating the wonderful world of dragonflies for example will go beyond local habitats and look at the issue more broadly.

    I am interested to know your reasons for believing that the AGW is a failed theory and why you consider it to be a “pernicious quasi-religious belief system”

    Kind regards SJ

  7. geoffchambers

    to SJones
    I really don’t want this conversation to go on for ever, but you’ve accused me of another contradiction when I refer, on the one hand to the successes of Western societies in cleaning up the environment and on the other to the frustrating nature of much activism (I deliberately chose two very different examples – protecting dragonflies and eliminating malaria – in order to point up the extremely disparate nature of what gets lumped together under the heading of environmentalism).
    Please note we’re talking social history here, not exact science. It would be surprising if anything as solid as a true logical contradiction could be found in my musings.
    You might be interested to know that my position may be closer to yours than it is to the editors of this blog, since I accept environmentalism as a legitimate political movement, and I disagree with the opinion, frequently voiced here, that it lacks democratic credentials. From the moment the Greens got 10% (or whatever) in an election, for whatever reasons and by whatever means, they have political legitimacy in my book. (Which doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t oppose them, of course, on political grounds).
    I suspect your real quarrel with me is over my scepticism with respect to AGW. If you really want a good sceptical précis of the case against AGW, this is the clearest one I know.
    I’ve seen this popular exposition criticised on two grounds; 1) that the Heartland Institute printed and distributed thousands of copies and 2) the author is the girlfriend of a prominent sceptical scientist, Dr David Evans. (But that’s the Climate Science debate for you).

  8. SJones

    To Geoff Chambers. I am sorry you see me as accusing you. I really am not accusing you of anything, just pointing out. Neither do I have a quarrel with you. I am simply interested in your point of view is all. With the Copenhagen Conference on climate change coming up, it is vital that the issue be clarified. Some hope! It has become so polarised I believe that action on climate change will again be delayed. Which is precisely what organisations such as the Heartland Institute wish to achieve.
    Thanks for the link.

  9. SJones

    To Geoff Chambers. I am sorry you see me as accusing you. I really am not accusing you of anything, just pointing out. Neither do I have a quarrel with you. I am simply interested in your point of view. With the Copenhagen Conference on climate change coming up, it is vital that the issue be clarified. Some hope! It has become so polarised I believe that action on climate change will again be delayed. Which is precisely what organisations such as the Heartland Institute wish to achieve.
    Thanks for the link.

  10. Mark

    You’re not from round here are you? Local doom from local (nationalist) NGOs

    Thank you for another beautifully written and researched critique of yet more extinction porn. UK environmental NGOs just don’t seem to be able to resist a gloom and doom slant, whatever the nature news. It’s all of a part with the ‘mass extinction across the world’ story caused by us terrible humans and their terrible activities. A ‘fact’ endlessly asserted by environmental NGOs, many campaigning scientists and now whole government departments. This big lie must, in NGO eyes, always and everywhere, be reinforced whatever the facts of the matter.

    There’s something desperately chauvinist, Royston Vasey and sad, if not stupid, about obsessing and fretting about what happens to a particular species in the UK. What ‘matters to the species’ is not what’s happening here, but what’s happening worldwide. When climate changes, and it always does, species distributions change too. It was, and ever will be, thus. The fact that species numbers go down in the UK often/usually/almost always only matters to the locals who don’t see/catch/eat as many XXX or YYY. This is a personal, parochial concern. Although I admit if one of the birds that I relish seeing goes down in number, I am disappointed, but that doesn’t matter ‘to the species’.

    Most environmental groups default to the, ‘any reduction in number is bad’ and a sign of man-made doom. Some can’t resist automatic default to apocalyptic doom even if the numbers are large and/or going up! The RSPB “Handbook of British Birds” (which is excellent) is full of obligatory doom or, more often, doom-lite. So, although there are between “20,000 – 39,000 pairs in the UK…and numbers have increased slightly” of Black Guillemots, various threats are listed under “Conservation” including the obligatory oil pollution and, maybe, a lack of sand eels. Even the Herring Gull, of which there are about 140,000 pairs in the UK, and is hardly threatened by anything, gets a “Some have suffered from botulism – a disease caught from bacteria found on refuse tips and in shallow pools..”. There must always be a manmade threat, however trivial.

    Your article beautifully punctures this sad, silly, parochial, neurotic, journalistic tick. Thank you, again.


    Remarkably well executed post.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.