Tag Archives: Hereford

Insects in flight – whatever happened to the splatometer?

I have been musing about extinctions and shifting baselines for a while now; BREXIT and an article by Simon Barnes in the Sunday Times magazine (3rd September 2016) finally prompted me to actually put fingers to keyboard.  I fear that BREXIT will result in even more environmental damage than our successive governments have caused already.  They have done a pretty good job of ignoring environmental issues and scientific advice (badgers) even when ‘hindered’ by what they have considered restrictive European legislation and now that we head into BREXIT with a government not renowned for its care for the environment I become increasing fearful for the environment. Remember who it was who restructured English Nature into the now fairly toothless Natural England, because they didn’t like the advice they were being given and whose government was it who, rather than keep beaches up to Blue Flag standard decided to reclassify long-established resort beaches as not officially designated swimming beaches?  And, just to add this list of atrocities against the environment, we now see our precious ‘green belt’ being attacked.

My generation is liable to wax lyrical about the clouds of butterflies that surrounded us as we played very non PC cowboys and Indians outside with our friends in the glorious sunshine.  We can also fondly reminisce about the hordes of moths that used to commit suicide in the lamp fittings or beat fruitlessly against the sitting room windows at night.  The emptying of the lamp bowl was a weekly ceremony in our house.  We also remember, less fondly, having to earn our pocket-money by cleaning our father’s cars, laboriously scraping the smeared bodies of small flies from windscreens, headlamps and radiator grilles on a Saturday morning.  A few years later as students, those of us lucky enough to own a car, remember the hard to wash away red smears left by the eyes of countless Bibionid (St Mark’s) flies, as they crashed into our windscreens.

splat-1

Typical Bibionid – note the red eyes; designed specially to make a mess on your windscreen 🙂 https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/GBgoGHhRbj-eUUF9SxZ4s9MTjNZETYmyPJy0liipFm0?feat=embedwebsite

Are these memories real or are we looking back at the past through those rose-tinted glasses that only show the sunny days when we lounged on grassy banks listening to In the Summertime and blank out the days we were confined to the sitting room table playing board games?

We have reliable and robust long-term data sets showing the declines of butterflies and moths over the last half-century or so (Thomas, 2005; Fox, 2013) and stories about this worrying trend attract a lot of media attention. On a less scientific note, I certainly do not find myself sweeping up piles of dead moths from around bedside lamps or extricating them from the many spider webs that decorate our house.  Other charismatic groups, such as the dragonflies and damselflies are also in decline (Clausnitzer et al., 2009) as are the ubiquitous, and equally charismatic ground beetles (carabids) (Brooks et al., 2012).  But what about other insects, are they too on the way out?  A remarkable 42-year data set looking at the invertebrates found in cereal fields in southern England (Ewald et al., 2015) found that of the 26 invertebrate taxa studied less than half showed a decrease in abundance; e.g. spiders, Braconid parasitic wasps, carabid beetles, Tachyporus beetles, Enicmus (scavenger beetles), Cryptophagid fungus beetles, leaf mining flies (Agromyzids), Drosophila, Lonchopteridae (pointed wing flies), and surprisingly, or perhaps not, aphids.  The others showed no consistent patterns although bugs, excluding aphids, increased over the study period.  Cereal fields are of course not a natural habitat and are intensely managed, with various pesticides being applied, so are perhaps not likely to be the most biodiverse or representative habitats to be found in the UK.

But what about the car-smearing insects, the flies, aphids and other flying insects?  Have they declined as dramatically?  My first thought was that I certainly don’t ‘collect’ as many insects on my car as I used to, but is there any concrete evidence to support the idea of a decline in their abundance.  After all, there has been a big change in the shape of cars since the 1970s.

splat-2

Top row – cars from 1970, including the classic Morris 1000 Traveller that my Dad owned and I had to wash on Saturdays.

Bottom row the cars of today, sleek rounded and all looking the same.

 

Cars were  much more angular then, than they are now, so perhaps the aerodynamics of today’s cars filter the insects away from the windscreen to safety? But how do you test that?  Then I remembered that the RSPB had once run a survey to address this very point.  Sure enough I found it on the internet, the Big Bug Count 2004, organised by the RSPB.  I was very surprised to find that it happened more than a decade ago, I hadn’t thought it was that long ago, but that is what age does to you 🙂

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The “Splatometer” as designed by the RSPB

The idea, which was quite cool, was to get standardised counts of insect impacts on car number platesThe results were thought to be very low as the quote below shows, but on what evidence was this based?

“Using a cardboard counting-grid dubbed the “splatometer”, they recorded 324,814 “splats”, an average of only one squashed insect every five miles. In the summers of 30-odd years ago, car bonnets and windscreens would quickly become encrusted with tiny bodies.”  “Many people were astonished by how few insects they splatted,” the survey’s co-ordinator Richard Bashford, said.

Unfortunately despite the wide reporting in the press at the time, the RSPB did not repeat the exercise.  A great shame, as their Big Garden Birdwatch is very successful and gathers useful data.   So what scientific evidence do we have for a decline in these less charismatic insects?  Almost a hundred years ago, Bibionid flies were regarded as a major pest (Morris, 1921) and forty years ago it was possible to catch almost 70 000 adults in a four week period from one field in southern England (Darcy-Burt & Blackshaw, 1987).   Both these observations suggest that in the past Bibionids were very common.  It is still possible to pluck adult Bibionids out of the air (they are very slow, clumsy fliers) in Spring, but if asked I would definitely say that they are not as common as they were when I was a student.  But as Deming once said, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.”  In the UK we are fortunate that a long-term source of insect data exists, courtesy of Rothamsted Research, the longest running agricultural research station in the world.  Data have been collected from a nationwide network of suction and light traps for more than 50 years (Storkey et al., 2016).   Most of the publications arising from the survey have tended to focus on aphids (Bell et al., 2015) and moths (Conrad et al., 2004), although the traps, do of course, catch many other types of insect (Knowler et al., 2016).  Fortuitously, since I was interested in the Bibionids I came across a paper that dealt with them, and other insects likely to make an impact on cars and splatometers (Shortall et al., 2009).  The only downside of their paper was that they only looked at data from four of the Rothamsted Suction Traps, all from the southern part of the UK, which was a little disappointing.

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Location and results of the suction traps analysed by Shortall et al. (2009).

Only three of the trap showed downward trends in insect biomass over the 30 years (1973-2002) analysed of which only the Hereford trap showed a significant decline.  So we are really none the wiser; the two studies that focus on a wider range of insect groups (Shortall et al., 2009; Ewald et al., 2015) do not give us a clear indication of insect decline.   On the other hand, both studies are limited in their geographic coverage; we do not know how representative the results are of the whole country.

What a shame the RSPB stopped collecting ‘splatometer’ data, we would now have a half-decent time series on which to back-up or contradict our memories of those buzzing summers of the past.

Post script

After posting this I came across this paper based on Canadian research which shows that many pollinators, possibly billions are killed by vehicles every year.  This reduction in insect numbers and biomass has also been reported in Germany.

References

Bell, J.R., Alderson, L., Izera, D., Kruger, T., Parker, S., Pickup, J., Shortall, C.R., Taylor, M.S., Verrier, P. & Harrington, R. (2015) Long-term phenological trends, species accumulation rates, aphid traits and climate: five decades of change in migrating aphids.  Journal of Animal Ecology, 84, 21-34.

Brooks, D.R., Bater, J.E., Clark, S.J., Montoth, D.J., Andrews, C., Corbett, S.J., Beaumont, D.A., & Chapman, J.W. (2012) Large carabid beetle declines in a United Kingdom monitoring network increases evidence for a widespread loss of insect biodiversity. Journal of Applied Ecology, 49, 1009-1019.

Clausnitzer, V., Kalkman, V.J., Ram, M., Collen, B., Baillie, J.E.M., Bedjanic, M., Darwall, W.R.T., Dijkstra, K.D.B., Dow, R., Hawking, J., Karube, H., Malikova, E., Paulson, D., Schutte, K., Suhling, F., Villaneuva, R.J., von Ellenrieder, N. & Wilson, K. (2009)  Odonata enter the biodiversity crisis debate: the first global assessment of an insect group.  Biological Conservation, 142, 1864-1869.

Conrad, K.F., Woiwod, I.P., Parsons, M., Fox, R. & Warren, M.S. (2004) Long-term population trends in widespread British moths.  Journal of Insect Conservation, 8, 119-136.

Darcy-Burt, S. & Blackshaw, R.P. (1987) Effects of trap design on catches of grassland Bibionidae (Diptera: Nematocera).  Bulletin of Entomological Research, 77, 309-315.

Ewald, J., Wheatley, C.J., Aebsicher, N.J., Moreby, S.J., Duffield, S.J., Crick, H.Q.P., & Morecroft, M.B. (2015) Influences of extreme weather, climate and pesticide use on invertebrates in cereal fields over 42 years. Global Change Biology, 21, 3931-3950.

Fox, R. (2013) The decline of moths in Great Britain: a review of possible causes. Insect Conservation & Diversity, 6, 5-19.

Knowler, J.T., Flint, P.W.H., & Flint, S. (2016) Trichoptera (Caddisflies) caught by the Rothamsted Light Trap at Rowardennan, Loch Lomondside throughout 2009. The Glasgow Naturalist, 26, 35-42.

Morris, H.M. (1921)  The larval and pupal stages of the Bibionidae.  Bulletin of Entomological Research, 12, 221-232.

Shortall, C.R., Moore, A., Smith, E., Hall, M.J. Woiwod, I.P. & Harrington, R. (2009)  Long-term changes in the abundance of flying insects.  Insect Conservation & Diversity, 2, 251-260.

Storkey, J., MacDonald, A.J., Bell, J.R., Clark, I.M., Gregory, A.S., Hawkins, N. J., Hirsch, P.R., Todman, L.C. & Whitmore, A.P. (2016)  Chapter One – the unique contribution of Rothamsted to ecological research at large temporal scales Advances in Ecological Research, 55, 3-42.

Thomas, J.A. (2005) Monitoring change in the abundance and distribution of insects using butterflies and other indicator groups.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 360, 339-357

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From Company Solicitor to Victorian Lunatic Asylum

ALEXANDER WILLIAM DOW LEATHER

 A BIT OF A BLACK SHEEP

1837-1890

One of the things that sticks in my mind from my youth is how relatives of my grandmother’s generation (those born in the 1870s and 1880s) who spoke of my great-great Uncle Alexander William Dow Leather, always in the following breath sighed and uttered the phrase “poor Pritchard”.  This of course made the subject of my great- great Uncle Alec (as he was apparently known) one of great interest to the budding family historian that I then was.

There was not a great deal known about my great-great uncle, at least in our branch of the family.  In fact I was to find out that there was surprisingly little known about him at all.  All we really knew was that he was the eldest son of my great-great grandfather John Wignall Leather (1810-1887).  My great-grandfather John Henry Leather was born in 1842 and was the youngest child of the family, preceded by Walter (1840-1869) and Florence Mary (1838-1886), so we knew that Alec must have been born in about 1836.

Some years later my first cousin once removed, Michael Leather of Knaresborough, supplied me with some additional information.  It transpired that Alec had been a solicitor and had led a somewhat riotous youth, drinking and womanising.  Once, whilst under the influence, he had fallen off his horse into a pond in Askham Richard.  Michael supplied the further information that he had been married twice, first to “poor Pritchard” whom he had deserted, leaving her and their two children in Herfeford where she had relatives.  These two children were Francis Holdsworth and Isabella Gertrude Leather.  Francis Holdsworth Leather became in time Michael’s godfather.  According to Michael, Alec had a second family – Percy, Mabel and Alan.   He also knew that Francis Holdsworth Leather had three children, one of them John Francis, died of influenza shortly after Michael was born in 1918.

The Yorkshire IGI informed me that Alexander William Dow Leather was christened in St Peter’s, Leeds on 24 May 1837.  His names puzzled me for some time, because they were so unfamilial; George, William, John and James were the normal first names at that time for our branch of the family.  I later found out that the family doctor was named Dow.  The 1860 Post Office Directory of the West Riding informed me that Alexander William Dow Leather was a solicitor at 4 Finsbury Park, Leeds.  The 1864 Woollen Districts Directory listed him at 1 Bond Street, Leeds, which was also the business address of his father John Wignall Leather.

I searched the St Catherine’s House Indexes assiduously and found that Alexander William Dow Leather had married Ellen Elizabeth Pritchard at Great Barfield Parish Church, Middlesex on 12 June 1860.  His wife was born in Hereford in 1839 and was described as the daughter of Thomas Pritchard, Gentleman of Park Gate, Essex.  At last I had found “poor Pritchard”, but where Alec had met her I still do not know.  Ellen died in Hereford in 1872, by which time Alec had disappeared from the Leeds Directories.  I continued searching through the indexes and found that his eldest son Francis Holdsworth was born in 1864 in Kensington, and his daughter Isabella in 1862 in Leeds.  She subsequnetly maried the Revd John Swire at Tupsley Parish Church, Hereford in 1882 and died in Wantage in 1891. The youngest child, Alexander Ernest, was born in 1866 and died the following year as a result of a scald, a surprisingly common form of death, even in middle-class families.

Some time later I obtained a copy of John Wignall Leather’s will (made in 1886) and this fuelled my interest in Alec to an even greater extent.  It told me that Alec’s second wife was called Jenny and that she and her children were living in Leeds.  Kelly’s Directory of Leeds 1888 confirmed this, indicating that she lived at 52 Samuel Street.  The Leeds Grammar School records show that her son Percy Alexander Leather attended Leeds Grammar School’s commercial division in the 1880s and that his tuition was paid for by his grandfather John Wignall Leather.  The two codicils to the will excited my interest greatly.  Here was John Wignall in his final illness (the last codicil is witnessed by his surgeon) and yet he took the time to alter his will to make sure that his eldest son Alec would not in any circumstances be allowed any of his money, particularly that left to his daughter-in-law Jenny.  What could Alexander have done or be doing, to have caused this much anxiety to his father?  I was hooked.  I had to find out more about Alec.

What about his second family?  I found his second marriage to Jane (Jenny) Potter, daughter of Edward Potter, Farmer, at the Parish Church of St Margaret West, Essex on 5 April 1873.  This confirmed that Alec was a bit of a gad-about and certainly not a full-time resident of Yorkshire.  At about this stage in my research, the Yorkshire Family Historian published an article I had written about my search for Yorkshire Leathers.  In this article I mentioned the infamous Alec and named his children as given to me by my cousin Michael.  I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter from David Burnet of Guiseley who had had, my article drawn to his attention by an Australian cousin.  His great-grandfather had been the solicitor for my great great-great uncle George Henry Leather (1815-1897), and had been responsible for drawing up and administering the terms of his will.  As well as being George Henry’s solicitor he was also his brother-in-law.  David had in his possession a notebook that detailed all the beneficiaries of the will including their addresses up until 1907: a real treasure trove.  I found out that Alec’s youngest son was not called Alan but was in fact Cyril John Cadman Leather.  Armed with this fact I soon found his birth certificate.  He too was born in London, in Greenwich in 1879.  I also located the birth of certificates of more children of the marriage, Percy Alexander born in Camberwell in 1875, Mabel Caroline born in Peckham in 1877 and Violet Bertha born in Lewisham in 1888. Interestingly enough, Alex’s profession moves from being Company Solicitor of the family firm, George Leather & Sons Navigation, to solicitor’s clerk as his family grew and his dwellings moved down-market.   Then I came across Alec’s photograph in an old family album and was stunned to see that his nose was almost identical to mine – I had always thought that my nose was unique!  I was also struck by his resemblance to Del Boy (played by David Jason) in the BBC TV series Only Fools and Horses!

Alexander Wm Dow Leather

I scoured the St Catherine’s House Indexes of deaths and eventually located an entry for an Alexander William Leather in Barnet in 1890.  This seemed promising so I wrote to Somerset House to see if they had a copy of his will.  Wills are a great source of family history, if you are lucky enough to have a family who believed in writing them.  They give much more information about the individual and his family than the death certificate, and are only half the price.  As a solicitor I felt sure that Alec would have made a will, but to my surprise none was registered.  I sent off for the death certificate and found that Alec had died in Friern Barnet Lunatic Asylum, the causes of death being cystitis and disease of the kidneys.  This suggested that he had been an alcoholic and that the riotous living of his youth had caught up with him at last.  It also solved the problem of why his father had been so anxious to ensure that no money came his way.  Interestingly enough the death certificate, although listing him as a solicitor, had no known address for him.  His family had obviously cut all links with him or vice versa.  I wrote to the Greater London Record Office who hold the records for Colney Hatch (as Friern Barnet Lunatic Asylum is more popularly known), but unfortunately the casebooks for the period 1885-1890 are not yet available for public perusal.

Since that appeared to be as far as I could go with Alec I decided to search for his descendants.  I found that his eldest son Francis Holdsworth had married Ella Mary Smith of Weobley in Herefordshire in 1893.  They had three sons, John Francis (1894-1918), Geoffrey Clifford (1897-1901) and Godfrey Clifford (1902-1943).  Francis lived his whole life in Weobley apart from his service in the First World War.  He was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the RASC and was awarded the DSO.  Like his father he was a solicitor.  He died a year after his wife, in 1929.  His wife Ella is famous as the author of Folklore of Herefordshire http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ella_Mary_Leather .  Their youngest son Geoffrey was also a solicitor and, although married, left no direct issue.  That line is thus extinct.  Isabella, the eldest daughter, married the Reverend John Swire in 1882.  They had three children, John (1884-1905), Mercy born 1886 and Nona born 1888.  Isabella died in 1891 and her husband in 1902.  I do not know what became of the daughters.

The second family has proved equally elusive.  I have found the marriages of Percy Alexander, Mabel Caroline, Cyril John Cadman and Violet Bertha.  Percy Alexander, at the time of his marriage to Emma Wilson in Leeds in 1896, is described as a salesman.  I know that in 1907 he was living in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada and later found that he died in Leslieville, Alberta in 1921.  I have also managed to contact his descendants who are now natives of Calgary.  Mabel Caroline married a widower, George Hampton in Knaresborough in 1898 and subsequently moved to Bath and married secondly, Augustus Davies, with whom she had four children.  She died in 1951.  Cyril John Cadman married in Rotherham in 1906 and died in 1931 in Rochford, with no offspring that I have been able to discover.  Violet Bertha married Herbert Colville in 1912 and died in 1957 leaving behind four children.  I know nothing further.  It is interesting to note that – of their marriages, neither Percy nor Mabel listed their father as deceased; presumably they were unaware of his death.

I am always hopeful that one day I will hear something more about this branch of the family and look forward to meeting any long-lost cousins who may turn up.

The great thing about family history is that you are never sure what you are going to find out or whereabouts in the world you have relatives.  This story is also an illustration of how the computerisation of paper records, which is all I had available when I began my research into Alex, has enabled me to add more detail to a story that was rather sparse almost twenty years ago when I first wrote about him in the Yorkshire Family Historian.

Leather, E.M.  (1912)  The Folklore of Herefordshire. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Folk-lore-Herefordshire-Collected-Printed-Sources/dp/0951858904/ref=la_B001KIXX3C_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1362929648&sr=1-1

Leather, S.R. (1990)  The Leathers in Yorkshire.  Yorkshire Family Historian 16 (3), 69-72

Leather, S.R. (1994)  Alexander William Dow Leather – black sheep of the family?  Yorkshire Family Historian  20 (4), 99-101

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