Going, going ... secret life of our rarest insect may soon be buried for ever

The scarce and secretive mole cricket could be burrowing to extinction.
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The Independent Online
The mighty mole cricket is hardly ever seen, despite being one of Britain's largest insects. It is very scare and secretive, spending 99 per cent of its life burrowing two feet underground.

Only one colony is currently known on the mainland, and that is in a suburban garden in Macclesfield, Cheshire. Less than a year ago, a report produced jointly by the Government and conservation groups suggested the cricket was on the brink of extinction, if not already lost.

But now it seems that may be far too pessimistic a view. Mike Edwards, a freelance entomologist, believes there are several other colonies dotted around the country and he wants to find some.

''It's certainly rare and it has declined, but I'm sure it's still out there,'' he said. ''No one has really got a clue about how many there might be.''

Mr Edwards has a research contract with English Nature, the Government's wildlife conservation arm, to track the crickets down.

He also keeps several fine specimens, bred from a large colony found in a hut at the bottom of his garden in Midhurst, Surrey.

The cricket is the length of a locust but much broader, with huge front legs like spiked shovels which it uses for rapid burrowing. It can dig its way out of sight within 10 seconds.

It takes three years from the hatching of the eggs to reach adulthood. The growing crickets become dormant in the winter, but when the ground warms they tunnel and eat voraciously, consuming earthworms, tubers and even their own kind.

Once they undergo their final moult, which gives them fully developed wings, the males crawl from their burrow in mid-summer for just two or three nights during their entire life. With a very long, loud and mechanical- sounding trill, females within earshot - which may be as much as a mile away - fly towards them to mate.

The big, secretive insect needs soils which are almost always damp - but not bogs - and plenty of summer-time warmth. It finds the right conditions close to ditches, ponds, springs and wetlands. A century ago its presence was recorded over much of the country but sightings gradually petered out and it has also declined elsewhere in Europe. The draining of wetlands and the spread of intensive modern farming methods were probably to blame.

But Mr Edwards believes people are far less likely to encounter them these days because far less digging of the ground is done by hand, and far more by machine.

Meanwhile, in Macclesfield, the call of the mole cricket was heard, loud and clear, in the garden of Roy and Sandie Hawkins this summer - much to their delight.

The summer before they had found a fully grown cricket on their patio. They kept it alive in a jar, had it identified by the borough council, then released it in their large garden. The fact that a cricket was heard calling this year means they probably have a colony there. ''It is an ugly beast and it makes you shudder at first,'' said Mrs Hawkins. ''But now we're delighted to be providing such a rarity with some habitat.''