ECOS 38 (4)

How studying beetles led me to study people

My undergraduate dissertation on beneficial beetles in farmland concluded that sound land management approaches are vital, guided by farmers’ decision making. This led me to my current Masters study on communication of agri-environmental messages to farmers, and the varied influences on their actions.

Agriculture’s place in nature

Agriculture is arguably the biggest contributor to the degradation of Britain’s wildlife habitats. In the UK, farming constitutes 70% of our terrestrial area, affecting the majority of our ecosystems directly. I chose an agri-environment topic for my undergraduate dissertation as it seemed an area where the work could provide some influence.
The intensification and mechanisation of agriculture has been notorious in  damaging and further fragmented many wild areas, habitats and species. A main policy response has been the inclusion of conservation initiatives in agricultural policies. Extensive debate has surrounded the efficiency of these policies, and there is frustration that they have yet to produce sufficient and consistent gains to conservation. However, they have had measurable and substantial results.1 One of the most promising aspects of these conservation policies is the growing recognition of ecosystem services (the benefits that humans derive from natural systems).

Beneficial beetles

During my reading I had noticed the use of beneficial insects in mutually beneficial agri-environmental policies. Pest control and pollination services have been studied and applied widely to boost effectiveness of conservation efforts in arable farmland. However, I noted that there were no similar provisions for pastoral farmland, and decided to carry out my undergraduate dissertation on this topic. I studied the factors governing abundance and diversity of beneficial Coleoptera (beetles) across local farms. I surveyed vegetation, beetles themselves, mapped the farmland, and interviewed farmers to discern agricultural inputs.

Pitfall trapping. Numerous site visits meant I got to know the farmers quite well. They were all interested to hear what I’d been catching from day to day.
Photo: Kelly Jowett

Ground beetles are the focus of much study and policy in arable farmland, due to their use in direct predation of such pests as aphids and slugs. My findings correlate higher species diversity with mapped attributes of high landscape connectivity and habitat suitability. Ground beetle abundance shows no correlation with any of the factors I measured in this study; I suspect a combination of factors, especially site history, is responsible.
Dung beetles are vitally important service providers in agri-ecosystems: their actions in dung decomposition (including tunnelling behaviours) improve soil nutrients and structure, benefitting grass sward quality and water regulation. Fast dung turnover reduces insect pest breeding grounds (added to direct predation of larvae in dung), and maximises browsing area.2

My study correlates dung beetle abundance with site management, specifically cattle wormer usage. My literature review backs this up. Wormers have been extensively linked to dung beetle declines through direct toxicity and reduced fecundity. The run-on of this is that wormer use can actually have negative consequences to productivity. The effects were plain to me in my site visits. A farmer who used wormers preventatively had visibly longer dung decomposition rates, and I saw parasitic worms and maggots in the dung I surveyed. Since wormers are generally over-used, and concerns are accelerating for resistance; switching to use of less toxic varieties, and use only when actually necessary, makes much economic sense and promises sustainable returns to productivity.

Dung search survey. Differences in dung invertebrates and consequential dung decomposition rates was marked. This was my top count of dung beetle larvae (18 in 10cm2) at a conservation managed site with wormer use policies.
Photo: Kelly Jowett

The farmers I worked with are all positive about conservation, however (except for one site managed by the Wildlife Trusts), they were unaware of the impacts of wormers, and even the services that they were losing out on. The most notable point of my study is that management, and therefore beetle abundance, is most influenced by the attitudes of farmers.

From beetles to people

Agri-environmental measures, apart from very basic regulations for environmental condition, are entered into voluntarily by farmers and landowners. As such, knowledge, and perceptions, of costs and benefits to the farm enterprise tends to be the main influence on conservation at a farm level. Since farmers’ and land owners’ perception of conservation is generally a loss to productivity, more production-focused farmers are generally unwilling to adopt meaningful conservation measures. Therefore, educational intervention must have a tremendous capacity to change attitudes, and hopefully increase farm conservation management.
In order to further the conservation of beetles, I am now looking into the social dimension of farming; the aspects governing decision-making on farm environments. My literature review during study design identified a multitude of factors influencing farmer decisions. Demographic variables, financial aspects, scheme experience, innovativeness, media use, social influences, advisory influences, environmental attitudes, self-image and perception of own abilities, are among the most crucial. Knowledge alone cannot change attitudes. Education must recognise the impacts of other factors.
My current MRes study is on the effects of persuasive communication on farmer decision making regarding agri-environment schemes. I have designed a ‘Beneficial Beetles’ management package similar to the current pollinator and wild bird bundle. Added to this I have produced educational leaflets on the mutual benefits of beetle conservation and how to carry it out within the farm plan. Each leaflet contains information on the concept of ecosystem services, the utility of beetles to agricultural production, and advice on how to implement measures.
A ‘generic’ leaflet contains information and context on beetle ecology. Two leaflets contain persuasive content relevant to other factors governing attitudes. A ‘traditionalist’ leaflet contains imagery and text relevant to this farmer type, such as images of a farmer and child, text on treasured farm birds, and simple bright diagrams. The ‘productivist’ leaflet contains more facts and figures, and technical language. The study is an experimental design, with the impacts of the leaflets and control measured by a questionnaire measuring attitudes, and the above factors.

Educational leaflets on agri-environmental measures. Three versions; Generic, Productivist, and Traditionalist (and control of no leaflet) will be used in an experimental design to test the effects on farmer attitudes.
Photo: Kelly Jowett

An opportunity for change

In my pilot studies I trialed my leaflets and questionnaire measurements in extended interviews with various farmers. This experience was eye opening. While I learned about stakeholder engagement in lectures and assignments, it was not until I experienced it first-hand that I appreciated the reality. Farmers are close to the land, they all care about nature; how can they not when it impacts on them so much? The people I have met work so hard, without holidays, with poor remuneration, and very little recognition. They all wanted to conserve more, but with them, as with any of us, their needs come first. Conservation is predominantly viewed as separate to productivity; and so under financial constraints, they perceive that they cannot afford to undertake certain measures. Even farmers undertaking agri-environment schemes mostly focused on the funding as necessary to their business.
Even the most positive of those I interviewed were highly dissatisfied with the current situation of agri-environment schemes. Shifting objectives, variable and unfair regulation, and burdensome paperwork put off even those who had seen positive effects. Since scheme participation has been shown to increase environmental awareness and voluntary action, under a decreased budget and newly competitive bidding for funds (in mid and high tier3), negative impacts on general farm conservation practice look likely.

Towards holistic solutions

Meeting these people, and realising the severe constraints that they are under, made me want to help them as much as the beetles. However, just as beetles need suitable habitats, linkages, and freedom from harmful inputs, farmers need diverse and connected productive land, enabling financial and technical support, social connections, and appreciation.
Farming has a unique position at the juncture of social, economic, and environmental concerns. In the UK it is vital to national food security, trade, cultural and social landscape values, water and air quality, wildlife diversity, resource use and greenhouse gas budgets. When faced with such a complex network of factors influencing the often beleaguered state of farming today; a reductionist approach is understandable.
The current farming system is fragmented in every sense, each institution has reduced problems to their own sphere. The social aspect, while widely acknowledged in even government studies4, is neglected in policies. The lack of awareness of the benefits of conservation can be addressed, but this can only be done effectively with a holistic approach.
Ideally my study will feed into arguments for improved communication to farmers. I would like to see a reinstatement of state financed advisory services, linked to research institutions. These should work in a knowledge exchange aspect (rather than top down provision only), to work out tailored management for both environmental, and farm productivity outcomes. This should work within a localised system of farm commerce, linking communities back to producers, with fair pricing.

My reality check

I started out, in abstract, viewing farmers as stakeholders; a means to further my ends. My study has a long way to go (probably all the way through a Phd and out the other side), but so far I have learned that people are just as important as the environment. In an interdependent system, no element can be improved in isolation. We can’t improve the effectiveness of agri-environmental conservation without improving the human elements in the system; and this constitutes much more than economy and productivity. Reconnecting farmers with the land via ecosystem services thinking, also necessitates people reconnecting with each other.


  1. Péter Batáry, Lynn V. Dicks, David Kleijn, and William J. Sutherland (2015). The role of agri‐environment schemes in conservation and environmental management. Conservation Biology, 29(4), pp.1006-1016.
  2. Sarah A. Beynon, Warwick A. Wainwright, and Michael (2015). The application of an ecosystem services framework to estimate the economic value of dung beetles to the U.K. cattle industry. Ecological Entomology (2015), 40. Insects and Ecosystem services special issue (Suppl. 1). pp 124–135
  3. Defra 2016. Countryside Stewardship: Mid Tier Manual (2016). HMGOV; Defra Countryside Stewardship: Higher Tier Manual. Published 14 March 2016. London: HMGOV
  4. Tony Pike (2008). Understanding Behaviours in a Farming Context: Bringing theoretical and applied evidence together from across Defra and highlighting policy relevance and implications for future research. Defra Agricultural Change and Environment Observatory Discussion Paper.


The author is currently researching for an MRes in Global Food Security and Development. She is webmaster of Derbyshire and Notts Entomological Society.

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