The silence of the meadows

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Years ago, as a child exploring the forests and heaths of coastal Suffolk, my summers were dominated by nature’s sounds. Wind sighed in the brittle twigs of the birches as I stalked the light beneath them; perhaps a curlew let loose its haunting cry over the marsh late one evening as I chased the sun back home. But the sound I most associate with those hot summers of freedom in the outdoors was created by some of the smallest creatures of all: crickets and grasshoppers.

I remember the sound, that constant, almost deafening buzz of invertebrates beyond number chirping in the swaying grass – the low background tones, the louder staccato attacks from the larger critters, the brief lulls as a bird of prey passed over the meadow. That sound was the background music to many a summer walk over the years. It was the music of the Sandlings.

The Sandlings is a man-made landscape. The post-glacial land was thickly forested until this primordial woodland was cleared by early human settlers. It’s a peculiar characteristic of the dry, almost arid landscape of eastern Suffolk that the common land gradually became what we know as heathland. Lightly grazed by sheep and deer for thousands of years, heather and small plants dominated the ecosystem, often interspersed with stands of small trees where they were able to gain a toehold against the grazing animals. It’s a diverse, semi-wild landscape, and home to a wide variety of plants and animals, including a flourishing population of reptiles.

The area of the Sandlings I came to know as home contains more than 20% of the world’s entire resource of lowland heath. But despite determined conservation efforts for many years, heathland is endangered; it’s under pressure from farming and forestry, easily damaged by severe drought, and sensitive to the loss of critical species. It may not be truly wild, but it is a precious ecosystem. The majority of heathland habitats in the UK have been destroyed during the last century.

Two years ago, I found myself hiking through the Italian Alps. I was walking along a dusty lane through a meadow of long grass, and I heard that sound – the buzzsaw music of the grasshoppers, louder than you’d really believe it could ever be. And it hit me with a shock. I hadn’t heard that sound for a long time.

It puzzled me. Surely it was a constant feature of summer walks in the Sandlings? But no – when I returned, and took one of my favourite walks through the forest and out into the open heath, the music was eerily silent. A few grasshoppers chirped quietly here and there, but the riot of sound I’d heard in the Alps – the very sound I most associated with the Sandlings – was gone.

It was a shock. How could I have failed to notice this disappearance? The truth, I suspect, is that it happened very gradually and over many years. Even as some areas of the Sandlings are beginning to thrive where once bracken and bramble predominated, the battle isn’t over and invertebrates suffer from pollution, habitat loss in other areas, and extraordinarily dry summers. Human disturbance is a problem for many species, too.

Our world is changing around us. This is just one anecdote, but in less than fifteen years I have already seen this change in an ecosystem I know and love. What else will have changed in another fifteen years?

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