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Extinct New Forest Cicada to be reintroduced to the UK – via Paultons Park theme park

Extinct New Forest Cicada to be reintroduced to the UK – via Paultons Park theme park

The singing insects that provide a shimmering soundtrack to Mediterranean summers are to be reintroduced to the UK.

The New Forest Cicada, Cicadetta montana, was once found across the New Forest National Park but there have been no confirmed sightings since the 1990s.

Now, a tiny team of passionate experts including animal keepers at Paultons Park theme park – home of Peppa Pig World – are planning to catch cicadas of the same species in Slovenia, bring them back to England and start a new population in the forest.

Bringing live adults back to the UK has never been attempted before, and any cicada nymphs that hatch this year will spend the next six-to-eight years underground feeding on plant roots, so it will be impossible to know whether even the first step of the reintroduction has been successful until 2030 at the earliest.

The daring, first-of-its-kind project is being led by the Species Recovery Trust (SRT).

Lead project officer Charlotte Carne said: “This whole project is a really exciting experiment: the adult cicadas are going to be extremely hard to spot, and although they do sing, it’s pretty much impossible to hear the song if you’re over 30 so we have to use bat detectors. Our officers are going out to Slovenia for just three days and we might not catch any cicadas. Even if we do, we then need to wait six years to find out if the first generation makes it to adulthood. It’s so exciting, but also a little tense!”

Paultons cicada habitats by Pete Hughes
Paultons cicada habitats by Pete Hughes

Cicadas are found across the world and are famous for their loud songs and for spending up to 17 years underground as nymphs. In the United States this year, several trillion cicadas will emerge after either 17 or 13 years below ground.

The SRT has been looking for cicadas in the New Forest for the past ten years but has not made a single sighting. The Trust has assessed the habitat management techniques the species needs to survive and has worked with Forestry England to put this management in place so they are now ready to attempt a reintroduction.

Given the New Forest is already at the northern edge of the species’ natural range, climate change might also favour the reintroduction.

Now Natural England has given the Trust £28,000 as part of its Species Recovery Programme to bring the population back from the dead. The project is also being supported by the Valentine Charitable Trust.

The work will start in earnest in June when SRT founder Dominic Price and conservation officer Holly Stanworth fly to Slovenia.

Various subspecies of Cicadetta montana are found across Europe, so the team have honed in on a population of the exact one that used to be found in the New Forest in Slovenia’s Idrija Geopark.

There they will team up with Slovenian entomologist Matija Gogala, as well as a geopark officer, and spend three days hunting through the undergrowth. Finding the males will be made easier by using bat detectors to pick up the high-pitched song; to find females, the team will have to use their eyesight alone.

Females grow to about 5cm – the males are smaller. The song, not as musical and some cicada species, is a fairly static hiss, and many humans over 30 struggle to hear it at all.

With these challenges in mind, the team are hoping to catch just 10 cicadas – five males and five females.

The team will have to hand their precious cicadas to a specialist Slovenian courier who will drive the insects to Vienna and put them on a plane to Heathrow where another specialist courier will get the insects through customs and finally hand them to Charlotte Carne.

That is when Charlotte will take the cicadas to Paultons Park.

Paultons Park, on the edge of the New Forest National Park, also boasts a zoo with animals ranging from ring-tailed lemurs to unusual insects and birds. They are giving their expertise and a significant amount of time to the cicada project free of charge.

Over the past six months, the zoo team at Paultons Park have been creating a cicada habitat that will hopefully enable the species to breed.

Firstly, they have filled ten plant pots with hazel tree saplings, hawthorn, raspberry canes and purple moor grass and covered these with netting. The cicadas will be carefully released in male-female pairs into these bespoke honeymoon suites.

The team then hold their breath and hope that, after their journey to from Slovenia to Paultons Park via Vienna, the cicadas are in the mood.

If the bugs are bitten by the love bug and the females get pregnant, each one will be able to lay several hundred eggs in the twigs of the hazel and hawthorn.

The adults will only live for a few weeks then, their historic contribution to ecology accomplished, they will perish.

All being well, the eggs should hatch in November. The tiny white nymphs, each smaller than a grain of rice, will tunnel out of the twigs, fall to the soil below and burrow down. If they survive, they will spend the next six-to-eight years sucking the sap out of the roots of the hazel and moor grass.

The zoo team are also planning to transfer some of the eggs to see-through plastic wormery-style containers filled with soil and a few moor grass plants, providing a window so the team can keep an eye on their progress and check that the growing nymphs are healthy.

If all these steps go to plan, then in January next year Charlotte will take a selection of plant pots to three top-secret woodland glades in the New Forest and plant them out.

The Trust has been working closely with Forestry England to identify these sites and plan their management over the coming years.

Meanwhile Paultons Park will keep more of the pots with nymphs in the soil as a back-up, in the hopes that they will also hatch one day and could provide a captive population that could feed the one in the forest.

After that, there is nothing to but wait.

If the experiment has worked then one day when the weather is warm in May or June 2030, a keen-eyed keeper at Paultons Park may notice the soil in one of their plant pots moving gently.

When Cicadetta montana nymphs emerge, they build tiny turrets out of soil which are thought to allow them to check temperature and other conditions are right.

If they are, the little brown larva will use its powerful front legs to climb out of its hole and up the nearest plant stem. Over the course of an hour it will shed its nymphal skin and emerge as a glistening black-and-orange adult. Its crumpled, wet wings will slowly expand, dry and harden, and if it is a male it will start singing its gentle, barely-audible love song.

Charlotte explained: “The New Forest Cicada doesn’t have a super-important ecological role, but I think it has a real intrinsic value as the only cicada species native to the UK. For me, there’s also something about the fact that their calls haven’t been heard for decades. I want my children to be able to walk through the forest in 10 or 20 years and hear them; to really experience the sounds of the New Forest.”

Allison Potts, area manager for Natural England’s Thames Solent team, said: “I am absolutely delighted that Natural England has supported this nature recovery project returning cicadas to the New Forest in Hampshire.  Millions of people value the New Forest for its beautiful landscape and rich wildlife.  I hope that in future the New Forest soundscape will be just as rich with cicadas re-established and thriving in their ancestral range.”

Find out more at speciesrecoverytrust.org.uk and follow the Trust at facebook.com/TheSpeciesRecoveryTrust


Main image: Cicadetta montana by Jaroslav Maly

The Species Recovery Trust is a charity devoted to saving some of Britain’s most endangered species. The primary aim of our work is to remove 50 species from the edge of extinction in the UK by the year 2050 by targeting the species and the habitats they live in. Our work involves producing dynamic conservation strategies informed by detailed scientific knowledge, and making sure they are carried out effectively throughout our conservation sites. Registered Charity Number 1146387. Find out more at speciesrecoverytrust.org.uk