Dragonflies’ Scotland’s stunning scenery attracts an equally dazzling insect family
Nearby a male common hawker dragonfly patrols up and down its shoreline territory, continually on the lookout for prey and for females to mate with. It alights on a sedge, then takes to the air again before suddenly swooping forward in a rapid burst of speed to snatch a small fly out from the air.
These damselflies and dragonflies bring real colour to this highland lochan but their beauty is only fleeting – they will soon be dead, on the wing for only a matter of weeks in the last stage of a much longer underwater lifecycle that can last up to five years, depending on the species and the environment.
Once mated, the female dragonfly or damselfly lays her eggs in the water or on water vegetation, which hatch into six-legged carnivorous larvae that lurk on the bed of a pond or loch, voracious hunters seeking out a wide range of invertebrate and other prey such as tadpoles and small fish. Then, after a couple of years or more, the larva crawls out of the water onto the stem of a plant and from its larval skin emerges a dazzling adult winged insect. It is this underwater stage that particularly fascinates Pat Batty, the Scottish recorder for the British Dragonfly Society, and provided the initial spur that now fuels her passion for these colourful and unusual insects.
“They are such fascinating insects and I’ve always found the underwater stage of their lifecycle particularly interesting,” she says. “The contrast in lifestyle and difference in appearance between the larval and winged stage could hardly be greater.”
Dragonflies and damselflies are similar in appearance, but damselflies are smaller and thinner and have a weaker flight, and generally hold their wings together when resting. Scotland is home to about 23 breeding species of dragonfly and damselfly. The dragonflies most likely to be encountered are the four-spotted chaser, golden-ring dragonfly and the common darter. For damselflies, the most frequent species are the large red and the common blue.
Scotland also supports three species of dragonfly that are not found anywhere else in Britain – the northern damselfly, azure hawker and the northern emerald – underlining the important responsibility this country has for their conservation. At least two new breeding species – the emperor dragonfly and the banded demoiselle – have been added to the Scottish list in recent years, their colonisation from the south possibly due to climate change. However, this a double-edged sword with other more northern species that are on the edge of their range being threatened by such changes in our environment. It is estimated that a third of dragonfly species in Britain are threatened.
Pat Batty says: “The fortunes of Scotland’s dragonflies and damselflies depend upon the availability of suitable habitat and this is where conservation efforts should be directed. These insects generally prefer still and running shallow freshwater areas, as well as open woodland, and the conservation of such areas not only benefits dragonflies but also a whole host of other fauna and flora.
“We are also lacking knowledge on the distribution and ecological requirements of many of our dragonfly species and this is where amateur enthusiasts can help, by providing information on sightings.”
The British Dragonfly Society actively collects records of dragonflies that help with the setting of conservation priorities and identification of important habitat areas. Working with Scottish Natural Heritage, the society is currently running a postcard campaign for the public to report on sightings of the common darter dragonfly so as to gain a greater understanding of its distribution.