Cornish pasty smokes out rare insects

Scientists use West Country staple to prove that scaly cricket survived the grounding of the MSC Napoli
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Naturalists have deployed cunning subterfuges, from cameras disguised as tortoises to mimicking the mating call of a tiger, to track down elusive subjects of interest. But never before has a Cornish pasty been used to resurrect one of Britain's rarest insects.

The scaly cricket, a 13mm-long insect mostly found on the shingle beaches of the Mediterranean and resident in only three places in the UK, was feared to have disappeared from Branscombe beach in south Devon after the 62,000-tonne cargo ship MSC Napoli was deliberately run aground in January 2007.

The listing vessel shed tonnes of oil and hundreds of its 2,000 cargo containers. The resulting stampede to salvage booty, from BMW motorcycles to nappies, which brought thousands of people to the normally sedate beauty spot, was feared to have destroyed the fragile population of the diminutive pseudomogoplistes vicentae.

But the National Trust announced yesterday that the cricket has been rediscovered alive and well at Branscombe after one of its employees, a keen entomologist, spent several days searching the beach for any sign of the once-thriving cricket population. It was only after using a morsel of his lunchtime snack to bait a trap that evidence of the nocturnal insect was found.

Adrian Colston, the trust's property manager from Dartmoor and the official recorder of orthoptera (the genus of crickets and grasshoppers) for Devon, said: "I set some traps by putting a glass into the beach with some bait. I used cat biscuits, pieces of apple and a bit of my Cornish pasty. When I came back I found that one of them contained a single adult female. The discovery would indicate there is still a good population of scaly crickets.

"That they have survived at all is nothing short of a miracle. They suffered a triple whammy. There was the oil pollution from the ship and the area where everyone was trampling the shingle was precisely the scaly cricket's habitat. Then they cleaned the beach by picking up the shingle where the insect lives, washing and dumping it back."

The shyness of the scaly cricket means that little is known about its habits. Apart from the observation of one scientist who found a specimen snacking on a bird dropping, it is not known what it eats while scavenging in its beach habitat or where it lays its eggs.

For many years the cricket, which has no wings and is thus unable to "stridulate" or make the chirruping noise associated with the insect, was thought to only inhabit Chesil Beach in Dorset, prompting theories that it was imported to Britain during the Second World War in sand from the Mediterranean, where it proliferates.

But subsequent research has found the British population of scaly crickets probably dates from at least the Iron Age. The insect, which lives for three years, is also found in Pembrokeshire and on the Channel Islands. Mr Colston said: "The rediscovery is a great relief and we can now do some further work to see how the population is doing after the Napoli. It has been around here for at least 9,000 years so we would hope it is going to be around for a good while yet."