The man rescuing Britain’s ‘magical’ glow worms

by | Oct 27, 2023 | Climate Change

Getty ImagesBy Helen BriggsEnvironment correspondent”The fascination of glow worms for me is that they are in effect magic,” says ecologist Pete Cooper, as he tramples through thistles and nettles. “The glow worm has been the symbol of the other world, of love, of hope, of rebirth, of simply the great mysteries of nature.”The insect is declining in many parts of the UK due to a host of factors, from habitat loss to light pollution. Experts believe artificial lighting is distracting the males so they miss out on a chance to mate.The young conservationist has a passion for glow worms that’s second to none. He has gone to extreme lengths to breed and release them in the south of England, such as here in Hampshire.He stops by a pile of rotting logs and opens the Tupperware tub he’s clutching to his chest. Inside, not the takeaway it once contained, but a scattering of dirt. Peering closer, I spy a tiny centipede-like insect waving a limb, one of Pete’s precious cargo of baby glow worms. “These larvae were hatched this summer, so they are very young and they are only about the size of a grain of rice,” says the protégée of reintroduction pioneer, Derek Gow, known for his work with beavers, white storks and water voles. “I’m not holding the twinkling box of lights,” he adds, referring to the eerie greenish-orange glow made by the female of the species; the stuff of fairy tales and folklore.In fact, glow worms aren’t worms at all, but beetles. The males are fully-winged as adults and can fly, while the females are wingless and have to glow frantically in the summer months to attract a passing mate.”The male comes in because it’s attracted to the site of the glow and it goes, ‘Wow shiny,'” says Pete, who is passionate about nature. He’s been a zoologist “since I could walk” and his first words were trees, bracken and gorse.Reintroducing wildlife species ‘not a priority’Rewilding project transforms bare hillsideUK red kite success story sees chicks sent to SpainAfter studying zoology, he worked as a professional ecologist for seven years, turning to breeding glow worms in his Bristol flat during the first lockdown in 2020. While many of us were baking banana bread, Pete took up the “impossible” challenge. “It was quite a cathartic moment of hope in that horrible Covid year of collecting these lights in the dark,” he explains. “But poetry aside, when we started, actually, it wasn’t very poetic; it was a bit of a disaster.”At first he lost a lot of animals. He turned to citizen scientists for help, including a hobbyist whose bred 21 generations of glow worms over 14 years at his home in Germany.He soon perfected and scaled up his techniques and has now begun releasing glow worms at various sites.I’ve joined him in the grounds of the historic Elvetham Hotel near Fleet, where he’s helping to create a refuge for the insects in wild areas at the edge of manicured green lawns.More than a thousand glow worm larvae have been released over two years in this “living laboratory” and this summer he had the first encouraging signs with the discovery of one glowing female. “It’s a long way to go before I would describe this release project as being successful,” Pete explains. “But that’s the thing about conservation; it is a long game.”Newly-hatched glow worms need natural grassy habitat with plenty of snails to dine upon.In a scenario out of a horror movie, the young insects crawl onto the animal’s shell and inject a paralysing toxin that slowly turns the snail’s insides into soup, which they then suck dry.This horror aside, not everyone’s chuffed with the idea of reintroducing glow worms – and many other animals – into the wild.WildWood, DevonThis week, the government said the likes of beavers and storks being released was a low priority, to a herald of criticism by wildlife groups.Alistair Driver, director of Rewilding Britain, sees this attitude as short-sighted. Over the phone from Broughton Sanctuary in North Yorkshire, where he’s advising on a project to bring wildlife back into the landscape, he says there are …

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