The health of the UK’s insect populations is to be assessed by a new project, which aims to advise on policies to help protect them more effectively post-Brexit.

There are growing concerns that insects are in widespread decline across Europe and beyond, thought to be caused by intensive agriculture and other human-induced pressures such as climate change. However, whilst there is strong evidence of declines in a few insect groups in certain areas, the evidence for overall insect declines in Britain remains sketchy at best.

Researchers at the University of Reading are among a team awarded £2.3 million from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to provide definitive evidence on whether insects are in decline in the UK, to understand the key drivers threatening their existence, and to support the development of environmental policies to protect them.

The new four-year DRUID (Drivers and Repercussions of UK Insect Decline) project, led by the University of Leeds with partners University of Reading, the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), and Rothamsted Research, will undertake the most comprehensive analysis to date of British insect populations from as wide a range of sources, and for as broad a set of species, as possible.

The project team will then use the data to test what factors have had the strongest impact on insect populations, and to model how different policy options could counter these effects. These findings will make an important contribution to the UK’s biodiversity conservation strategy now it is no longer part of the European Union.

“This research will help us to get a grip on the true extent of insect declines in the UK” – Professor Tom Oliver, University Reading

The researchers believe that the new set of environmental and agricultural management rules and incentives being designed after Brexit could provide an opportunity to address the drivers of decline in insects and other wildlife.

Professor Tom Oliver, Professor of Applied Ecology at the University of Reading, said: “This research will help us to get a grip on the true extent of insect declines in the UK. It will allow us to assess changes in their capacity to undertake essential jobs, such as controlling crop pests, decomposing waste and providing food for wild birds, mammals and other animals.”

In the DRUID project, an interdisciplinary team of researchers will be drawing on and calibrating three different types of data – from scientific monitoring, volunteer wildlife recorders (or citizen scientists), and from high-tech sensors, such as weather radar.

Collaborating with Leeds’ innovative BioDAR project, researchers aim to measure the volume of insects flying through the air across the UK every few minutes, all day and night, by detecting signals of the creatures in weather radar data.

By combining this high-level data with on the ground records from scientists and experienced wildlife recorders, the researchers hope to provide an accurate picture of the status of UK insect populations.

Most importantly, they aim to inform ongoing monitoring of insect populations, so the effects of different conservation policies can be assessed in future.

Project lead Professor Bill Kunin, from the University of Leeds’ School of Biology, said: “Whilst past agri-environmental policies were supposed to help wildlife by incentivising environmentally friendly practises, in reality the conservation benefits were often pretty minimal. Despite the substantial subsidies, it was often only the relatively common species that experienced any benefits.

“Through our new project we hope to provide a step-change in data on UK insects, to inform evidence-based policies that help nature, and thus humans, to thrive. Insects are the backbone of a healthy, functioning environment, so it is absolutely vital that we look after them.”