Springed beauties bring the sound of summer

Springed beauties bring the sound of summer

Ross Bentley goes in search of grasshoppers

Cornard Country Park

Cornard Country Park is stunning at this time of year.
Rangers from the Sudbury Common Lands Charity manage it on behalf of the parish council and with nature in mind. The results of this hard work and planning comes to fruition in summer when the wildflower meadows are in their pomp.
I find myself drawn to here time and again to take in the sheer beauty of the setting – a scenic diversion on my drive home or the picturesque destination of a cycle ride.
Sloping down towards me, almost as far as the eye can see, are dollops of pink in a swaying sea of yellowing Yorkshire fog grass. The pink belongs to the spikes of rosebay willowherb, much loved by bees who busy themselves moving from one flower to another. Giant clusters of wild marjoram prove just as popular, as do the deep cerise crowns of knapweed.

Walking through here is a bombardment of the senses; get down on your haunches and the effect is multiplied. The meadow becomes a jungle full of wonderful creatures making their way through the undergrowth; ladybirds, spiders, hover flies, meadow brown and common blue butterflies, and all manner of day-flying moths weaving through the grass stems.
I’m surprised to find multiple ant hills: towers of desiccated earth that the small insects have pushed to the surface as they fashion a network of subterranean tunnels below. The hills act as a protective entrance for the nest and their large surface area helps regulate the temperature of the domain, warming the interior as it takes in the sun’s rays.
This disturbance of soil stimulates the seeds of plants like sowthistle that add a vegetative decoration to the hills and act to conceal the citadel of industry below.

But there is one insect I have come here to see – grasshoppers.
Last summer, I was amazed at the number of these springed beauties I encountered here. By early July, the place was literally jumping with them; I only had to deviate slightly from the footpath to see large numbers of grasshoppers use their powerful hind legs to bound impressively out of the way of my giant feet. This year, I saw none in July and had to search hard to find any when I returned a month later. Maybe the prolonged spell of cold weather in April and May killed off many of the small nymphs from which they grow?
Like many insects, I remember an abundance of grasshoppers when I was a child and now I hardly see any. Was it because I was closer to the ground or are these Orthopteroids – the order of insects that grasshoppers belong to – much scarcer? Certainly, the number of places where they thrive – grasslands and meadows – have dwindled.

I stop still and am relived to hear the sporadic chirruping of grasshoppers from deep in the grass. It’s a wonderful sound – evocative of long summer days – which to my ear sounds like a kind of fuzzy rattling. This ‘song’ is produced by stridulation, which involves rubbing two body parts together.
On my brief walk I encountered three or four different species of grasshopper, including the common field and meadow grasshoppers, but could only tell them apart by sight. However, as with birds, using your ears to tune into sounds and calls is a far more efficient way of finding out what wildlife is in the vicinity. It tends to be only the male grasshopper that stridulates and apparently each species has its own distinctive song, which experienced entomologists can identify and use to survey an area.
Grasshoppers and crickets are often clubbed together and they are closely related although they do stridulate in different ways. Grasshoppers have a series of small pegs on the inside of their hind legs, which they rub against the fore wing. In the case of crickets, the pegs are located on one of the fore wings, which is dragged across the other wing.

Crickets vs grasshoppers
From my reading (may I recommend Wonderland by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss) I have found out that there are a few key differences between grasshoppers and crickets. The antennae of crickets tend to longer than their body, those of the grasshopper are shorter.
When it comes to diet, crickets are omnivores and will eat smaller insects while, as the name suggests, grasshoppers feed on grass. Lastly, grasshoppers call during the day, while crickets are more active at twilight and stridulate during warm, sultry evenings.
But whether it is night or day, it is a sound we should all cherish.

Ross Bentley, Trustee of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity

Cranesbill, Cornard Country Park