Stag beetle fights for life on mean streets of south London

On my way back from the shops this morning I came across a stag beetle scurrying across the pavement. Its head was severely damaged – the front having been severed in what looked like a clean cut with a sharp object. At first glance I could see he had lost his antlers, and was probably blinded. I managed to scoop him up into my shopping bag. The photograph below was taken in my back garden.

Injured stage beetle

Injured stag beetle

What you can’t see is that his left antler is trailing below his body. I’m hoping that his actual feeding mandibles are intact. Although I’m sure he’s been left blind, his defensive stance when touched is still active. The reaction could, of course, just be an instinctive response by the remnants of his central nervous system.

I managed to get him into the big stack of rotting wood I keep in my garden. I now realise that my kitchen compost bin would have been the best place for him. Apart from a female, the only thing stag beetles will fight over is rotting fruit.

Adult stag beetles are only active from late May to August. I sometimes see them on my runs in the Tooting Commons (their presence proved a powerful argument against the conversion of one common to a concrete football area). The only ones I see in the more urban areas tend to be dead. I can only assume that people either think they’re dangerous (they’re not), or mistake them for the Asian cockroach.

I think these are the most magnificent and noble of insects. Once common, the European stag beetle is now an endangered species. Incredibly, the south London and Surrey colony is apparently one of the last remaining big populations.

If you cut down trees or branches, you can do wildlife an enormous favour by half-burying them around the borders of your garden. It’s not just stag beetle larvae which will benefit. One of the reasons garden birds are in decline is that they can’t get enough insects for their chicks. Insects contain the high amounts of protein necessary for healthy development. Many’s the time I’ve seen birds feeding on insects and grubs from the rotting wood in my garden. Over the next few weeks I’m going to be putting the odd piece of rotting fruit in that stack for the mums and dads of next season’s larvae.

Post script, Monday 1st July

On the way to the bus this morning I found a female stag beetle on the other side of the same bit of road. Very peculiar to see two on consecutive days in a spot I’ve never seen any before. A litter-lout had left a convenient receptacle for me scoop her up and take her back to the same wood-pile as yesterday’s chap. Maybe they spent the morning making sweet stag beetle love? Or maybe they were Streatham Hill’s hottest stag beetle couple? Maybe she bit half his head off yesterday, in which case he won’t thank me for dumping her on him this morning… When will I ever learn not to try to sort out other species’ relationships?

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