Another Life: How much would you pay to save the hairy wood ant?

Lots of people are rightly keen to help conserve whales, pandas or elephants. It’s a trickier issue when you ask about the value of less appealing types of wildlife

On the floor: Formica lugubris is a ‘near-threatened’ species. Illustration: Michael Viney

On the floor: Formica lugubris is a ‘near-threatened’ species. Illustration: Michael Viney

Sat, Feb 22, 2014, 01:00

The question of what another of Earth’s species is “good for”, delivered with lifted eyebrow and sceptical jut of the chin, can open up a whole can of philosophical Lumbricidae . Good from what, or whose, point of view? After decades of green enlightenment, the range of popular insight into purely human benefits from nature has grown enormously. Earthworms tunnelling for agriculture, bees for pollinating fruit, deep-sea sponges offering tomorrow’s cures for cancer – the wider sense of nature in humanity’s service has never been keener.

Then there’s the heritage bit – saving birds and butterflies for our grandchildren to enjoy, or whales and dolphins that might boost the tourist trade. Even current human pleasure in nature can be given economic value by asking people how much extra tax they would be willing to pay to protect a threatened species, or enjoy a particular habitat. For example, Irish university researchers recently asked a 1,000-strong sample of people for their willingness-to-pay (WTP) value for public access to the nation’s forests. This “non-market value” of afforestation – conditional, as it proved, on proper regard for wildlife – surprisingly worked out at a respectable figure of up to €89.94 a year.

Charismatic species like pandas, elephants or tigers command ready respect and support, with no demands to know what they’re “good for”. But biodiversity conservation means looking out for species most people have never heard of or would want to find walking on their leg. What WTP, I wonder, would be offered towards conservation of Ireland’s hairy wood ant, Formica lugubris , one of this island’s rare and “near-threatened”creatures given special concern in the EU Habitats Directive?

A word on its edgily comical name . . . This centimetre-long insect has a sort of forelock of hairs, and distinctive red and black colouring that its discoverer, a Swedish naturalist called Johan Zetterstedt, appears to have found mournful when walking the dark Scandinavian woods in 1830. It is one of the wood ants still present in billions across the forests of northern Eurasia, from Ireland to Japan, but now threatened by human inroads into the trees. In Ireland the species is in serious decline, dwindling westwards to a main stronghold in Coillte woods in Co Tipperary, with more nests in Killarney National Park and Co Galway.

For decades its fortunes have been among the special interests of Prof John Breen, an entomologist now retired from the University of Limerick. His new dossier on the ant for the National Parks and Wildlife Service calls it “an iconic keystone woodland species” deserving special measures for conservation. It is certainly a most intriguing candidate for care.

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