Letters from Gilbert: 2

February 28, 2020
Gilbert White

Gilbert White was the first modern nature writer, and his studies of less well-known species like the field cricket leave a lasting legacy.

Gilbert White was one of the first, and for centuries one of the few, naturalists to study insects with scientific dispassion, while allowing his enthusiasm and sense of wonder to remain undisguised.  Every spring he recorded the first songs of the field cricket in A Naturalist’s Journal, until, on May 29, 1791, he reported that they had disappeared from the area:  “The race of field-crickets, which burrowed in the Short Lythe, & used to make such an agreeable, shrilling noise the summer long, seems to be extinct.”

It is difficult to know how widespread the field cricket was in Gilbert White’s time, but it is tempting to think that his journal entry of May 1791 was the first hint of its extinction from the whole country, apart from one remaining site, exactly 200 years later.  What White certainly knew – because he discovered it himself – was that field crickets have an annual life-cycle: they emerge, mature, reproduce and die within a year, with the future of the species entirely dependent on the survival over winter of dormant nymphs that hatched in the summer.  So if Selborne’s crickets didn’t make it through the winter of 1790-91, it would indeed have been a local extinction of an insect that, having no power of flight, may never have returned to its former haunt.

The Short Lythe, once home to Selborne’s field crickets photo: Laurence Rose

The Short Lythe is a field, now owned by the National Trust, at the northern edge of the village.  White described it in 1779: 

There is a steep abrupt pasture field interspersed with furze close to the back of this village, well known by the name of the Short Lithe, consisting of a rocky dry soil, and inclining to the afternoon sun. This spot abounds with the gryllus campestris, or field-cricket; which, though frequent in these parts, is by no means a common insect in many other counties.

Letter 46 to Daines Barrington, in The Natural History of Selborne

From the north east corner of the church yard of St. Mary’s, where Gilbert’s grandfather Gilbert was vicar between 1681 and 1728, an old, wooden kissing gate leads out of the village via the Glebe Field.  As curate, he would have had a short walk from the church to the fields where he studied his crickets.  I walked the same path last September, 240 years on, researching my next book, and consciously following in White’s footsteps. 

The song of the field cricket once resounded across the heaths and dry grasslands of Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, before falling silent from the summer night air everywhere, except in one last place, in West Sussex.  But in the last few years, at the RSPB’s Farnham Heath reserve in Surrey, nine miles from Selborne, around 240 acres of the original heathland has been restored. This has created ideal conditions for field crickets:  short, warm, tussocky grass with 10-50% bare ground.  As Gilbert White had recorded in the eighteenth century, the bare patches are needed for egg laying A reintroduction programme got underway and by 2016 this one new population had exceeded 300 individuals, at least three times the size of the entire national population at its nadir, two decades earlier.

Sounds do not always give us pleasure according to their sweetness and melody; nor do harsh sounds always displease. We are more apt to be captivated or disgusted with the associations which they promote, than with the notes themselves. Thus the shrilling of the field-cricket, though sharp and stridulous, yet marvellously delights some hearers, filling their minds with a train of summer ideas of everything that is rural, verdurous, and joyous.

Letter 46

In a conscious homage to Gilbert White in this, his tercentenary year, I have devoted a chapter in my forthcoming book to the story of the field cricket and the debt owed by entomologists and conservationists to Gilbert’s achievements.  I can now announce that Rethinking Nature – before we lose it completely will be out in October.  Watch this space!

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