Saving England's most threatened species from extinction

Introducing the Narrow-headed Ant

I’ve come to see a thatched dwelling in Devon. There are plenty of those in the county, but not like this one. I’m nowhere near a village scene from a chocolate box or tea towel; instead, I’m sitting among gorse and Purple Moor Grass on a patch of rugged heathland. No leggets, liggers or biddles were involved in the making of this roof – only the mandibles and collective ingenuity of one of the last colonies in England of the rare Narrow-headed Ant.

The nest is 30cm across, built up above the grass litter, and tilted south perfectly to receive constant full sun. I marvel at the intertwined patchwork layer of pristine freshly nibbled grass fragments making up the well-tended thatch. On the slight disturbance to the surface, an ant SWAT team emerges swarming from tunnels beneath, spoiling for a fight.

I like my rare species to be feisty. It may be a surprise then, that this is one of the most perilously endangered in the country. Discovered in England in 1865, just 150 years later it is on the brink of extinction. Mandibles and a combative attitude were no defence against the concreting over of Dorset heathlands, uncontrolled heath fires, and scrubbing over of New Forest and Dartmoor edge habitats. Over the last 60-70 years colonies have winked out of existence one by one; except for here - the last site left.

Dr David Stradling, a champion for the species, first showed me nests 15 years ago, and I’ve been involved ever since. Narrow-headed ant life history, nesting, feeding, mating and dispersal systems are unusual and fascinating. Now is the best, and perhaps last, serious chance to secure this ant society’s future at its remaining location, and help establish populations at former and new sites nearby. Alongside looking after the heathland, there will be volunteering, arts, crafts and educational projects, through which one community can inspire another. Who knows? Narrow-headed Ant might even feature on a tea towel.

Stephen Carroll
Project Officer

2 thoughts on “Introducing the Narrow-headed Ant

  1. I have located three Narrow-Headed Ants nest’s in the Wareham Area of Dorset. I do have location’s and photographs if you would like them.

    1. Hi Peter,

      Thanks for contacting us and sending photos.
      These are not Formica exsecta but any potential sightings are certainly of interest and worth following up: there’s an outside chance there might be unknown Formica exsecta nests still hanging on somewhere in their former known range, such as, for example, the New Forest!

      Many thanks,
      BftB

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