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Dragonflies and damselflies populations are thriving in the UK, with 56 officially recorded species. According to the British Dragonfly Society (BDS), six new species have been recorded in the UK since the late 1990s, and a seventh has returned after becoming extinct in the 1950s.
However, some species have declined due to habitat loss. Much of the fluctuation in dragonfly and damselfly populations has been driven by climate change. This has created a situation where some species are rare because they are newcomers who have arrived in small numbers, while others are scarce due to pollution and the loss of bogs and peat land.
Here’s a look at some of the rarest species in the UK and where they are most often found.
According to the BDS, the Common Clubtail is one of the scarcest British dragonfly species and is listed as Near Threatened on the British Red List. It is a medium sized dragonfly with a club-shaped abdomen. The female has black and yellow markings, while the male has black and lime green markings with yellow spots near the abdomen.
The native habitat of the Common Clubtail is lowland rivers with nearby woodlands. A survey by the BDS in 2017 found that it was most populous along areas of the River Severn, particularly between Twekesbury and Shrewsbury.
It was also found in reasonable numbers along stretches of the lower Wye and the lower Teme, and the River Dee between Wrexham and Chester. However, there were almost no sightings in traditional habitats along the River Avon or the River Teifi near Cardigan, and fewer numbers were found along the River Thames.
Conservationists believe that this is due to pollution which has led to poorer water quality and a build up of sediment. Eleanor Colver, Conservation Officer for the BDS, commented:
“The larvae of Common Clubtail are tiny river bed predators; they are very sensitive to changes in water quality such as increases in pollution levels and the amount of sediment being deposited. As a predator, a decline in their populations can also reflect problems further down the food chain.”
Endangered species of dragonfly
The Norfolk Hawker is listed as Endangered in the British Odonata Red List 2008 and is legally protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It has a light brown body with a distinctive yellow triangle marking. As the name suggests, its preferred habitat is the fens, marshes and ditches that characterise much of the Norfolk and Suffolk landscape.
However, sightings have been recorded throughout the south of England. Its numbers have declined significantly due to pollutants, changing water levels, and the conversion of marshland to arable land.
The white-faced darter is a small dragonfly with a black body and a pale face. The male has red markings and the female has yellow markings. It is also listed as Endangered in the British Odonata Red List 2008. Its natural habitat for breeding is the lowland peat bogs, while it hunts in woodland or scrub.
It has come under threat due to peat extraction for commercial use and the removal of Sphagnum Moss; bog land drying up due to climate change; pollution; drainage of land and change in land use.
Vulnerable species of dragonfly
The azure hawker is classed as vulnerable, and is only found in boglands in the Highlands of Scotland. It is a medium sized dragonfly with a brown body and blue markings.
The Brilliant Emerald has a distinctive metallic green body, and is classed as a rare and vulnerable species in the UK, with small populations found in Scotland and southeast England. It prefers sheltered still or slow moving water bodies such as ponds with plenty of shade. Its habitat has been lost through deforestation, pollution, and lower water levels.
New species of dragonfly
While some species are declining, climate change is driving new species of dragonfly to the UK. Insects are sensitive to small changes in climate because they are unable to regulate their body temperature as humans can. This means that species that prefer cooler conditions are migrating from hotter climates in Asia and Africa.
In Britain, certain species have been moving further north as warmer temperatures dry up bogs and other natural water bodies in the south. For example, the emperor butterfly only populated southern areas of Britain until the 1990s, but it can now be found throughout England and Wales, and in some parts of Scotland. According to the Natural History Museum, its numbers have increased by 56% as warmer summer temperatures help to provide optimum breeding conditions.
Although global warming is playing a part in the wider distribution of dragonfly populations, it is not all down to the negative effects of climate change. Efforts have been made in recent years to restore wetlands and preserve bogs and peatland in the UK, and in certain areas, river pollution has been significantly reduced.
New species spotted in Britain since the 1990s include the small red-eyed damselfly, the dainty damselfly, the willow emerald damselfly, the scarlet darter, and the vagrant emperor and lesser emperor dragonflies.
The dainty damselfly is a small dragonfly with a distinctive blue and black body. It was native to coastal areas of Essex until 1953, when its population was wiped out due to tidal flooding. It has since reappeared in areas of Kent from 2010.
The scarlet darter is a rare migrant dragonfly. The males have a bright red body, while females are a yellow brown colour. It was first spotted in the south of England in 1995, but sightings have been few and far between. The Migrant Dragonfly Project recorded a sighting in 2017 at Longham Lakes in Dorset.
While the increase in numbers of migrant dragonflies is not thought to be a particular threat, there is a concern that more aggressive non-native species could colonise the UK if conditions become more suitable for them. This could threaten the survival of native species as they compete for food sources and breeding sites.
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