Disappearing Britain: Last stand for 'singing' cricket depleted by the fickle summers: Oliver Gillie reports on attempts to save an English insect that is down to its last colony in the wild

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THE LAST REDOUBT of the English field cricket is a hill top near Petworth in West Sussex. In the early summer the male crickets sing a lonely song on the hill as they search for a mate.

The field cricket, Gryllus campestris, was once to be found in several counties in southern England. Now the entire population of English field crickets can be counted in dozens.

Michael Edwards, a biologist who has followed the creature's fortunes for almost 20 years, said: 'In the 1950s there were several other populations. One was lost when a car park was built over their breeding ground and another, which lived on the edge of a cricket field, died out after a run of bad summers.

'A few more bad summers and the last population of field crickets in England could be wiped out forever. In 1990 I could find only 15 singing males, in 1991 I found 25 and this year 35.'

The emergency has been recognised by English Nature, which has included the field cricket in its species recovery programme. The crickets are now being bred in captivity and released at suitable sites in the southern counties.

Although there are many species of insect threatened with extinction, the field cricket is a special case because it has an interesting song - something like a high vibrato version of the number-unobtainable sound on the telephone. The creature is also large, about an inch long, and handsome in appearance: shiny black in colour with a gold collar, long antennae and large jumping legs. The tenuous hold of this insect in England was recognised 200 years ago by Gilbert White, author of The Natural History of Selbourne. In 1791 he wrote in his diary: 'May 29: The race of field crickets, which burrowed in the short Lythe (a field near Selbourne), & used to make such an agreeable shrilling noise the summer long, seems to be extinct. The boys, I believe, found the method of probing their holes with the stalks of grasses, & so fetched them out & destroyed them.'

The crickets burrow into the turf during the winter and eat grass roots. In the summer the mature male builds a little singing platform shaped like a large spoon. He sits in it and rubs his wings together making the singing sound which attracts the females.

'The wings are rudimentary. It cannot use them to fly,' Mr Edwards said. 'It walks or hops, but it doesn't often move more than two or three hundred yards during the course of a summer.'

The field cricket seems to like patches of disturbed ground in old meadows where it can lay its eggs near grass roots. The young crickets gather on the bare ground soaking up the sun which they need for rapid development. It cannot flourish if the ground is disturbed by crop rotation or invaded by bracken which cuts out the sun.

'We have released 150 crickets which were at the nymph stage beside the cricket ground where they used to breed. We think there is a chance that they will be able to recolonise the area. And we have released another 500 nymphs at a heathy grassland site that seems suitable. We are going to monitor these releases and if they go well we hope to release some in a nature reserve where people could come and see them,' Mr Edwards said.

(Photograph omitted)