Mention ‘dung beetle’ to most people and the first thing they picture is a giant ball of dung being rolled around by a seemingly impractical sized beetle. Yet those minuscule muck movers are just the tip of the dung pile. Literally!
There are over 7,000 species of dung beetle (Scarabaeidae) worldwide, 43 of which are native to Jersey. Some roll, some tunnel, others live amongst the faeces. Its all to do with how their life-cycle has evolved and how, in turn, they give back to the natural world. And we don’t just mean as food for choughs!
Another feature often overlooked is the dung beetle’s ability to fly. They can disperse long distances and fly at speeds of 18 miles per hour (which means they could be breaking the law along Jersey’s green lanes!). They have evolved to be either day-time flyers or night-time flyers which in turn means they can be a great food source for birds as well as bats.
Some favour sheep or cattle dung, some have a penchant for deer droppings. The point is they are diverse and in turn require a diverse ecosystem to thrive.
Having a diverse range of ‘faeces farmers’ in an ecosystem provides enormous benefits including reduced greenhouse emissions, reduced parasite levels in pastures, increased soil organic matter, and reduced farming costs.
Sadly, 52% of the UK’s dung beetles are classed as under threat and it’s largely down to how we humans use (and abuse) the environment. The good news is that we can make a difference and for farmers, it can end up pocketing them a bit of money in the process.
At the recent Oxford Real Farming Conference, dairy farmer Bruce Thompson gave a talk about his beetle-friendly livestock management and how he is seeing tangible benefits. Since 2017, he has been researching and implementing alternative methods to using anthelmintics, drugs used to rid cattle of parasites, the use of which has been found to have detrimental impacts on dung invertebrates and the animals which rely on them such as red-billed choughs.
Bruce’s hard work has paid off. Literally. The cost of using traditional methods on his herd was an eye-watering €3,857. Bruce’s beetle friendly approach cost €859 and most importantly the dairy herd is performing equally well.
Bruce is a member of Dung Beetles for Farmers along with Sally-Ann Spence, entomologist research fellow and friend of Birds On The Edge. Sally-Ann (see here) and her colleagues from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History visited Jersey in 2015 to survey for beetles and assist the Société with specimen ID.
Bruce’s talk, along with others from Dung Beetles for Farmers, is available on YouTube and linked below. I urge you to watch it as it is very engaging, you will learn a lot, and you may even come away with a newfound passion for dung!