Stag nights are upon us

Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Mathew Frith on Stag Beetles and the story of the London Wildlife Trust Stag Beetle survey

One day in the spring of 1998, walking around the grey and drizzly streets of Southwark, I was confronted with huge black and white posters of a stag beetle on hoardings and buildings; intense black, somewhat roboticised mandibles and legs, set starkly against a pure white background. Tate Modern had yet to open; Bankside was still scruffy and fleabitten and such posters characterised a roughstreet undercurrent of a neighbourhood soon to gentrify.

The posters drew me up short. Stag beetles had truly arrived, and in style; they had become the posterboy (in this case) of Massive Attack, the ‘trip-hoppy’ collective from Bristol that had so enthralled me some years earlier with Blue Lines and Protection.  The posters were for their new album Mezzanine.

The previous year London Wildlife Trust had embarked on our first planned survey for stag beetle Lucanus cervus[1], with some additional help from Bromley Council.  A species that had been identified within the newly evolving London Biodiversity Action Plan, a real hurdle was we didn’t really know how common – or rare – stag beetles were, or where they lived in London. And given that the adults only appear for a short period – usually between mid-May and July – there was no way there were enough dedicated coleopterists (beetle specialists) to run around London hoping for a glimpse. Our only option was to depend on the interest, excitement and maybe even fears of the public.  We launched a survey using paper forms, notices in newspapers, signs in libraries and through our volunteer and professional networks. 

The response was, for the technology of the time, remarkable (over 400 new sightings), and we wanted to repeat it in 1998.  By then Government had helped fund action for ‘Priority Species’ – of which stag beetle was one – and People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) were granted the role for leading action for the beetle.  At the outset a group was convened to work out how to survey the species at the national level; I, and Alister Hayes of Bromley Council, were invited, at which we promoted the idea of a public ‘citizen science’ based survey.  Somewhat incredulously we were countered by two national experts who felt that the public couldn’t be trusted (in their words), that they would confuse the species with cockchafer, violet ground beetle, maybe even devil’s coach-horse or great diving beetle. Perhaps, but we were convinced, from the records we’d received in 1997, showed that most people did have an idea of what a stag beetle looked like, and that if we got the survey right then the numbers of responses would mitigate for the margins of error in identification. The national Great Stag Hunt was born; in May 1998 it was launched by Michael Meacher MP, the Minister of the Environment, at Richmond Park. He held a stag beetle for the press, and if you looked closely you would have seen the hole through which the pin was thrust. Nature doesn’t work to human time.

The Trust focused attention on the capital, and again when the Great Stag Hunt II survey was undertaken in 2002, which yielded far fewer results, as it appears with hindsight that the species numbers appear to fluctuate. Both surveys had identified that the national distribution of stag beetle had appeared to have reduced since the 1940s, and that ‘hotspots’ of sightings tended to follow a broad sweep from Suffolk in the east to the New Forest in the south; London was especially thick with sightings, reflecting the numbers of recorders (people) as much as anything. This picture hasn’t broadly changed since.

For the Trust, the surveys gave us data to help inform land managers and planners; we published our first guidance note, with English Nature and PTES, in 2000, which in time helped to lead to hundreds of loggeries being installed in parks and gardens. Dead wood is key to the beetle’s lifecycle, and the clearing away of fallen logs, dead and dying tree from sites was seen to be a key driver to their decline.

In 2005 English Nature designated three sites in London as Special Areas for Conservation (SAC), primarily for stag beetle as a ‘qualifying species’, which had been listed as a species of European conservation importance.[2]  Rather peculiarly, through the way the UK Government chose to interpret the European regulations, the SACs did not correlate where most stag beetles had been recorded since 1997, but three Sites of Special Scientific Interest where old trees stand; Epping Forest, Richmond Park, and Wimbledon & Putney Commons.  Stag beetle were – and are – recorded at these sites, but the vast majority in London are living in many thousands of gardens and parks without similar levels of protection.  Nature, again, doesn’t necessarily align with our attempts to regulate and codify.  So the need for public interest, advice and guidance is, in our view, more important than simple site protection measures.

Further national, regional, and local surveys have since been undertaken.[3] The Trust initiated more across London in 2005-06 and 2010-12, by which time our conduits were entirely via our website, a process that has continued annually since then, with an ever-increasing reliance on social media to send the message out and gather people’s sightings in.  Over the past 23 years all the data gathered passes to what is now Greenspace information for Greater London (GiGL), and this eventually feeds into a national database. 

When we started the survey in 1997 there were only 20 records of stag beetle on GiGL’s database.[4] Records now number over 26,700, the vast majority submitted by the general public in their thousands.   The data gathered over this period has also served to continually confirm an uneven distribution of stag beetle across Greater London, with pronounced focus across the south and western edges.  The reasons for this, despite many assessments and suggestions, is still not known. There are strong associations between stag beetle presence and some underlying soils (they are rarely seen on chalk or river alluvials, for example), but there seems little else to explain why its distribution is so skewed.

Perhaps more importantly, the surveys have demonstrated how this magnificent beetle captures the public’s imagination. The data sent to us is often accompanied by anecdotes, photos, and films usually infused with an enthusiasm and wonder at how such an insect is able to live with us in the city. This rich tapestry of personal stories adds so much more than simply dots on maps and helps the shape actions the Trust and others can take to meet the beetle’s needs.  

Last week I found one male - all grippy legs and mandibles defensively agape - just outside my flat; after putting him in a safer place, I then played Mezzanine for the first time in years. It still sounds fantastic.


[1] There are two species of stag beetle in London; Lucanus cervus, and the more widespread lesser stag beetle Dorcus parallelipipedus

[2] The SACs are also designated for some habitat features, for example Atlantic acidic beech woodland at Epping Forest

[3] A European network of surveys was established in 2008, now trialling standard monitoring transects.

[4] This merely reflects records submitted to a data record centre; many more records will have been taken and kept by individuals. Only when data is held by a record centre can it become useful for strategic action for species.