Country diary: a swift blast of beetle mania

Raveningham, Norfolk: Soon my yellow shirt is smothered in tiny black dots, and across the field there must be millions of pollen beetles

“Just passionate about life” is how Jake Fiennes, manager at this Yare valley estate, defines his approach to his job. It is also the phrase he uses to dodge my question about whether he’s a farmer or an environmentalist. For him the two are inextricably fused.

After haring across the valley on his tipoff, I find him combining both roles as he contemplates a field of rape. The 10-hectare plot looks commonplace until I log into the cloud of birds swirling overhead. Had I been here earlier I’d have seen 500 but, as it is, many scores of swifts and house martins swarm above the field. Together they cruise down and spire through the top of the crop, threading and rethreading it in an orgy of hunting.

The thing that drives the birds’ presence is initially invisible to my eyes, and I have to scrutinise the nearest vegetation to see the tiny insects on every leaf or stalk. They are pollen beetles in the family Nitidulidae, of which there are about 100 species in Britain. On most of us, however, this beetle biodiversity is lost, because the entire group look like black dots.

Their one unequivocal quality is an ability to build up to phenomenal numbers. In fact, many farmers consider them pests. Soon my yellow shirt is mistaken for an immense flower and I am smothered in hundreds, but across the field there must be millions. It is these on which the swifts now gorge, trapping the grains of protein at the back of their throats, which can hold 500 insects in one bolus.

The beetles may account for the swifts’ presence, but what explains the whole scenario is Fiennes’s passion for life. He first set this crop as winter feed for his sheep. Once they’d grazed it to the quick, instead of ploughing it under, eight months ago he left it to flower and seed. Last month it was a square dance in yellow for 10,000 bumblebees. Today it is a feeding frenzy of hungry birds. As Fiennes explains, this field has generated a harvest for sheep, insect pollinators, avian migrants and humans – and each fulfils his role as its manager.


Mark Cocker

The GuardianTramp

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