Nature Studies: Why Keats’s hedge cricket no longer chirrups autumn’s arrival

Crickets have gone from being among the most everyday insects, to become largely forgotten in Britain outside natural history circles

A A A

John Keats’s Ode to Autumn is often thought of as one of the most perfect lyrical poems in English and I imagine that many people are familiar with its first line, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness...”

It’s a piece of verse celebrating ripeness, the climax of the annual cycle of growth, and all the beauty which goes with that. An autumn of abundance, such as this year’s, which is overflowingly rich in hedgerow and woodland fruits and seeds – just go into the countryside this weekend and take a peek – usually finds the ode trotted out somewhere, for even though it was written after a walk along the River Itchen in Hampshire on a lovely September evening in 1819, its observations are just as resonant today. That is, apart from one, contained in the poem’s last lines, which focus on autumn’s sounds:

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Urbanised though we have become, we’re all still perfectly conversant with fully-grown lambs bleating, robins singing in gardens, and twittering swallows. But can you put your hand on your heart and say you know exactly what Keats is referring to when he writes “Hedge-crickets sing”? 

I doubt it. In the succeeding two centuries, crickets, which belong to the order Orthoptera, the grouping that also contains the closely-related grasshoppers, have gone from being among the most everyday insects, to become largely forgotten in Britain outside natural history circles.

Characterised for us chiefly by their singing – technically, stridulations, buzzing noises made by rubbing their wings together – crickets are divided into two main families, true crickets and bush crickets (the latter known in the USA as katydids. And while we’re on the subject of the USA, did you know that Buddy Holly’s backing group was called The Crickets?).

The best-known of the four British species of true crickets, the house cricket, was once universally familiar, because it needed warmth to survive the winter and sought out people’s fireplaces, where it would sing in the evening; Dickens based a Christmas story around it 'The Cricket on the Hearth'. 

Now it is rare, probably because of improved domestic hygiene and the disappearance of coal fires, as is its cousin the field cricket, a famous account of which was given by Gilbert White, the 18th-century Hampshire parson who wrote The Natural History of Selborne. These days, the field cricket is close to extinction in Britain.

The bush cricket family is more extensive, with 10 British species, including the wart-biter, fantastic beast, which allegedly really can bite your warts off, and these are generally a lot more common. There is a fascinating account of them (and of true crickets too, and all the orthoptera, for that matter – all the grasshoppers you ever want to read about) in Peter Marren’s colossal but captivating insect encyclopaedia, Bugs Britannica. 

There, you will learn that Keats’s “hedge cricket” was probably the dark bush cricket, Pholidoptera griseoaptera, whose “short chirps”, Marren says, still constitute “the most familiar bush cricket song, in some areas as much a sound of autumn as a solo robin.”

Alas, I have a problem with that. I have reached the age where I simply cannot hear some of the songs of crickets and grasshoppers any more, as the pitch is too high. This was brought home to me vividly last week on a country walk with a friend, the naturalist and writer Mark Cocker, an orthoptera enthusiast, who suddenly stopped and said he could hear a Roesel’s bush cricket singing.

“Where?” I said.

“There,” he said, pointing to the grass right next to us.

“Is it singing now?” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

I still couldn’t hear a thing, although Roesel’s bush cricket is meant to sound vividly like electricity wires crackling. Even worse, when I got home and played clips of it singing on YouTube, I couldn’t hear that either. The frequency is simply beyond my hearing range.

Cricket song is thus the one part of Keats’s autumn that I can’t appreciate; but from the mossy trees bent with apples – just as they are this year, again, go out and have a look –  to the clouds of gnats blown about by the wind, I certain appreciate the charm and the warmth of the rest of it.

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star