DÚLRA was in the garden with his daughter enjoying the great weather this week when he heard a low humming noise. It was from a far-off neighbour’s lawnmower, but when he first heard it, he wasn’t sure.
He turned to his daughter and asked: “Do you hear a grasshopper?” She replied: “I don’t know, I’ve never heard one.”
She must have during all those trips up the mountains with her da over the years. But she was adamant. It was, for Dúlra, proof that younger generations are becoming more disconnected from nature. And not because they aren’t interested, but because the ecological extinction that we have overseen in the past half-century has robbed them of something that we took for granted.
The sounds of summer of Dúlra’s youth were so different. It wasn’t just grasshoppers, there were cuckoos and corncrakes constantly calling. And you didn’t have to go out to the country to hear them, those were the calls that echoed through Andersonstown streets because nature was still so close to us.
The corncrakes disappeared in the blink of an eye and the cuckoo is becoming just as rare. As for grasshoppers, well, you didn’t have to go up the mountains to hear them. They’d call from any patch of uncut grass.
The problem is that today we don’t have any patches of uncut grass. And that message comes from the top. Stormont is surrounded by acres of beautiful grassland which is always cut to make it look ‘attractive’ in our eyes. But instead of attracting birds and bees and insects – and hopefully grasshoppers – it is mown to become an environmental desert.
The choice to do something different has been accepted, however, but by another political forum: Antrim and Newtowabbey Borough Council. A few years ago it joined the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan which addresses the decline of pollinators, of which the grasshopper is one.
Many of you have been asking what you can do to help our declining wild pollinators. Here are the top 10 actions you can take to support these important insects.🐝https://t.co/pFydPCXKKW— All-Ireland Pollinator Plan (@PollinatorPlan) March 13, 2022
(The @PollinatorPlan is implemented by the @BioDataCentre)
And it’s not just lip-service. A swathe of forgotten land to the right of Valley Leisure Centre used to be cut into an ‘attractive’ lawn just like that at Stormont. Then the decision was taken last year to just let it grow and wee signs were put around it saying it was part of the pollinator campaign.
And boy has it grown wild in just 12 months, with all sorts of flowers like sorrel and knapweed growing tall. Dúlra hasn’t walked through it yet, but he’s sure that it hasn’t gone unnoticed to meadow pipits and skylarks who breed on Cavehill, who will still be wary that the mechanised lawnmowers will arrive any minute. Those birds will attract kestrels and other birds of prey, even owls, and in just a couple of years the Council will have produced a whole new ecosystem.
The Council website lists all the work undertaken as part of the scheme to promote pollinators, including the Valley Park being one of eight meadows that are only cut once a year. Other actions include identifying hedgerows managed for pollinators and creating 14 sites where pesticides are reduced or eliminated.
Dúlra decided he wouldn’t take a chance on travelling to Valley to see if they had grasshoppers yet, but he knew where he would definitely find some.
And so he took his daughter once more on a short trip to the slopes of Black Mountain. You won’t hear grasshoppers just anywhere up here, most of the mountain is too exposed to wind for the long insects that live in the thick grass and are usually destined to be heard but not seen.
Dúlra knew the very spot. Up here, not far from the pitches at the back of St Mary’s, the ground remains untouched by pesticides or drainage. And because the tiny network of fields is so small and access from the ever-busy Springfield Road so hazardous, they’ve been allowed to grow unfettered.
Here the grass grows long under the sun’s rays, and there was always a soundtrack during every summer’s visit: the chattering of the grasshoppers as they rub their ribbed legs against their wings.
These long insects are wary of visitors – they stop their calls as soon as you got within 10 feet of them. If they sense any movement in the grass, they sit still. You could spend a whole day trying to spot one without success. But every so often you’d just happen to come across one, perched on a long stalk totally confident its camouflage was working. If you were mega-quick, you just might be able to cup your hands around it before it jumped.
And so we returned and just lay in the grass. And as soon as the sun emerged from behind a lone cloud, the ancient chant of the grasshoppers of Black Mountain struck up their peculiar song.
“They sound like a lawnmower,” said the daughter, eyes wide in wonder. Dúlra’s job was done.
• If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.