Message in a Bottle: Dung Beetles, Plastics and Pastoralism in the North York Moors.

Bathed in an empty blue sky of an eager Spring, the sun peeked its hungry light over the tired North York Moors. Watching from my window, it grazed the rear flank of Roseberry Topping – a sweeping cliff-edge peak venerated from tea towel to town hall across the sleeping valley below. With the muffled rumble of a nearby farm getting into its daily humdrum gear, I packed light and laced up my boots, to head for Roseberry’s mini Matterhorn summit.

The distant peak of Roseberry Topping, surrounded by agricultural land.

But I sought more than the sting of fresh air and dust on my feet. Growing up at the base of the Moors, I can trace each springtime nook and cranny as if lines on my nearing-thirty face. Yet in recent conversation with ecologist and voluntary park ranger Ste Thompson, it is now impossible to ignore that amongst the budding flowers and newborn lambs is a strange and unpleasant bedfellow. With a sickly translucent sheen that would make lead climate change denier Lord Lawson blush, it leaves a violent mark that will last many aeons into the future. It is – of course – plastic.

Beach cleans for plastics are fast becoming an activist norm, with Surfers Against Sewage leading the national effort, and social media storms such as #Trashtag trending across the globe. Although the waste-reduction benefits of these cleans are marginal, they serve as a great glue for local communities and help maintain the health of a local environment and associated species – we humans included. Beaches are a boost to mental well-being, and the cleaner they are, the better.

Springtime in the North York Moors.

Although inland ecosystems such as the North York Moors have equal positive effects, the attention to plastics is comparatively low. Despite the occasional Sunday-jaunt sign advising us to take litter home, responsibility for plastics in terrestrial ecosystems is stuck twiddling its thumbs in the corner of activism. And although less researched, terrestrial plastic pollution is proving to be just as menacing as marine. So armed with litter picker and refuse sacks, Thompson performs sole clean-ups to a distinct lack of ceremony. Inspired by his ‘high-cost’ pro-environmental action, I set out to try my own.

Packing light was to make room for potential plastics, and by the end my 24L bag was bursting at the seams with a kaleidoscope of collected bottles. Although more snugly hidden than its marine counterparts, moorland plastics are seemingly just as prevalent. Indeed, a landscape once tied together by idyllic pastoralism and weather-beaten waymarkers, is now bound by plastics that devastate flora and fauna, and pollute waterways.

Coming upon my most curiously depressing discovery – a bottle with a small massacre of dung beetles inside, evidently trapped by the plastic then cooked to an untimely death – I began to wonder if this legacy of littering went deeper. Looking through a plastic lens to the farmstead behind (that once housed Pacific colonialist Captain James Cook), could there be an unearthed connection between visitors discarding plastics and the keenly sought-out pastoral?

First finding of the bottle.

The iridescent husks of deceased dung beetles rattling in a filthy plastic bottle may seem an unusual smoking gun to spur on this ecological investigation. No strangled bird or choking deer, but a troop of Geotrupes stercorarius – or Dor beetles – lain to waste, their rumps shining in the midday sun. But if we unpick the bizarre tragedy of dead beetles in a bottle, we begin our journey into the plastic unknown.

Dor beetles live unglamorous lives, in that their world is a literal feast of shit. Coprophagous by design, they love nothing more than the taste of animal faeces, relishing it with delight to the point of raising their young beneath heaps of it. Unsurprisingly, they flourish in pastoral environments, due to the dung produced by livestock.

The stomach-turning nature of their work aside, munching away at droppings puts them on an ecosystem pedestal. Their capacity to recycle animal waste into nutrients for the soil potentially saves the farming industry millions, with this function considered of high importance to UK agricultural policy.

Dung beetles trapped in a plastic bottle.

Other species of dung beetle have been studied to thrive in agricultural over wilderness environments, and it is likely a similar story for the Dor. But with farming taking a turn towards the industrial in pursuit of higher yields and gorging profits, dung beetles are suffering in its toxic wake. Intensive farming methods, habitat destruction and livestock veterinary chemicals all contribute to dung beetle decline.

Whilst dung beetles help reduce the threat of parasites, they are victims of parasite-treating medicines, in turn helping the spread of parasites and demanding the use of more chemicals that will further harm the beetles. Such unintended yet destructive consequences are par for the agricultural course, and are laid open by the Dor beetles in the bottle. And so here the Dor beetles reveal what could be a major player in our plastics problem. Agriculture; that which has given them space to blossom. And more specifically, inorganic, industrial agriculture – which is now making them wither.

The emblematic presence of the Dor beetles – which may not have occurred had the Moors not been transformed into agricultural land – helps trace the roots of what caused this particular group to perish. Namely, the act of littering in a supposed pastoral idyll. By finding the Dor beetle, and its life giveth and taketh away relationship with animal agriculture, we can start to see the pastoral illusion cast over a countryside falsely perceived as pristine, and the effect this may have on the public psychology to litter at large.

A crevasse stuffed with litter on Roseberry Topping.

Gregory Bateson transformed the ecological community when he let loose the idea of an ‘ecology of mind’. In addressing the multiplying disasters of a mounting ecological crisis, Bateson argued that solving the problem went beyond plaster-sticking initiatives of a practical nature, such as renewables or recycling. Although these are important, what is more pressing is a revolution in the way we first think, not do. Humans in industrialised nations had to learn to think ecologically, and radically transform deeply-embedded beliefs that open the floodgates for rampant, destructive and irreversible exploitation of nonhuman nature.

This is revealed in our handling of plastics. Indeed, one of the infinite horsemen of our eco-apocalypse is plastic, swinging its single-use sword without worry or discrimination. With microplastics now literally blowing in the wind, and harmful traces found in every marine mammal surveyed in the UK, we’re seeing little in the way of answers. Although the issue has in no way gone unnoticed, with a ban on microbeads and much empty rhetoric from politicians, clutching at plastic straws is often in lieu of a real solution.

As plastic wreaks undeniably fatal havoc, its production and consumption persists, in what is a facepalm of priorities and confirmation of Bateson’s theory. Somewhere, deep in the recesses of our industrialised minds, we won’t put the brakes on the cancer-spreading, species-slaughtering, dung- beetle-trapping production of plastic.

Plastic was also abundant in the nearby woodland.

With profit as a priority for big businesses – coupled with convenience for the individual – plastics as an unshakeable pillar takes hold in our values. Believing in the freedom to consume without consequence, or profit to the point of destruction, we treat the nonhuman as a resource to facilitate these goals and bear the multi-nefarious burdens that result – plastic pollution included.

However, the belief of nonhuman nature as an exploitable resource for the advancement of human culture didn’t appear from the mists of ecological nowhere. These core (yet often subconscious) beliefs affecting outward actions are known as root metaphors, and can arise in a variety of ways. For instance, Christianity, with its saloon-spitting attitude of ‘dominion’ over nonhumans is often decried as helping the spread of human-selfishness in the West. But of course, Christianity hasn’t existed since the dawn of human development – yet something else has. Agriculture.

By planting that first seed, a culture viewing nature as resource was sown. Reaping the benefits of agriculture in the forms of food security, property ownership and wealth, landowners pushed for more aggressive expansion that would see biologically diverse ecosystems stripped bare, and nonhumans domesticated and slaughtered en masse. In permitting this, an ever-strengthening sentiment of civilised superiority from the rest of nature was required. To feed the world-building dreams of agrarian humans, demanded living nightmares for many nonhuman others.

Plastic left on a pastoral hillside.

Such conditions curiously allowed the Dor beetle to thrive. But as the choking clouds of industrial-capitalism rolled in, even they would no longer be exempt. With industrialised agriculture came farming techniques intent on relentless profit, dependent on a level of brutality and exploitation so far unseen. Backed by bloated corporate monoliths, industrial agriculture remains tightly woven into the political and economic structures that are key to capitalist development, entirely transforming the lives of both humans and nonhumans on no less than a planetary level.

From the snatching of public lands into private hands, and the destruction and poisoning of the land, to the disenfranchising of local peoples and nonhumans, industrial agriculture helped pave the way for our modern modes of super-consumption and capitalist dominance over our socio-political structures. Prominent theorists believe this legacy is so important to the current ecological crisis that in fact defines our geological era, departing from the traditional Anthropocene to be named the Plantationocene.

But masked in the powerful image of the pastoralist ideal apart from the urbanisation below, of cows happily chewing on grass, farmers with a thumb of wheat jammed in their jaw, and peaceful green fields broken only by the sounds of a noble tractor steering its fateful course – these crippling realities are concealed.

Evidence of agricultural plastic waste was everywhere.

Like many tourist locations, the North York Moors peddles this ideal, further suppressing the history of destructive beliefs and practices that make it possible. Be it the unrepentant over-grazing of land, the genocidal pesticides advocated by the National Farmers’ Union, hedgerows clipped into submission, sheep-dip poisoning workers, plastics polluting the soils and more – the pastoral ideal is a castle made of vicious sands.

This false ideal has spread a psychological wildfire of humanity as above and beyond the consequences of its actions, utterly divorced from the realities of our ecological existence. Our belief systems directed by these developments, we are blinkered by fleeting enjoyment, deep into the ecological abyss. We are like the Dor beetles entering the bottle, uncaring or unawares of the deathly consequences that lay barely around the corner. Having flourished in the pastoral, we subscribed to it tooth and nail, and now succumb to its deathly industrial whims.

A selection of plastic found on the walk.

Which brings us back to the bottle, nestled quietly on the side of Roseberry Topping. It is hard to imagine that whoever tossed it here – taking their last sugar-sweet sip whilst watching a sheepdog frantically herd cattle below – thought it would one day serve as gallows and graveyard for an unsuspecting family of Dor beetles underfoot. It’s possible they thought nothing much at all, as they turned the bottle to the Yorkshire winds. Strolling down the drowsy countryside lanes, along field and through farm, in a brief moment they chose to blemish the blooming landscape with a piece of imperishable dirt.

Yet, in the unforgiving light of the above, was this throwaway act appropriate of the landscape? An act of careless exploitation, lacking in forethought, totally unawares of the ecological implications and prepared to allow whatever crossed its path to endure the brunt of its consequences?

As they sailed the bottle beneath the blue sky, reflecting silver in the naked sun, they did so in the tradition of the pastoral. The sound of cast aside plastic, clattering unashamedly across the British countryside, is very much in tune with the beating and bleeding drum of industrial agriculture – fertilised by the false pastoral. The fields and farm houses drawing the moorland maps are slowly being replaced by waypoints of plastic, tossed fittingly onto the already-spoiled earth.

In effect, the landscape has littered itself. And with the death of the Dor beetles in search of sugary remnants, the rose-tinted ideal is shattered, revealing a truth be (un)told tradition of oppression and unrelenting exceptionalism. So if you wish to depart from this tradition, then pick up the plastic – recycle or repurpose it – and hike on, into a new ecological era.

The Millennial Ecologist

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