Butterflies for Biodiversity

As we mark Mother Earth Day on 22 April during the month dedicated to Sustainable Development GoalLife on Land’, we’re turning from UK Youth for Nature’s work on Scarborough beach to our own back gardens, to look more closely at a visitor who is often taken for granted.

Popular in gardens for their beauty as well as an indicator of warmer weather, butterflies are far more than a colourful and ephemeral guest; they are a vital part of UK and Irish ecosystems. Supporting a wide range of other predators and parasites, butterflies and moths are widely used by ecologists as model organisms to study the impact of habitat loss and climate change. Increasingly, however, they are not as common or garden as might be hoped. The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2015 report found that 76% of the UK’s resident and regular migrant butterflies have declined in abundance, occurrence or both over the last four decades, with challenges to their numbers continuing to worsen.

Enter, Butterfly Conservation. Founded in 1968 by a small group of naturalists, with Sir David Attenborough taking the helm as President in 1998, Butterfly Conservation has gone from strength to strength. The organisation now runs three of the world’s largest butterfly and moth recording schemes, which together have gathered over 37 million records. Among its many achievements are the successful re-introduction of the Large Blue butterfly to the UK after it became extinct, and a leading role in the establishment of Butterfly Conservation Europe, expanding conservation efforts beyond the UK’s borders to the entire continent. With a UK membership of more than 36,000 and supported by over 15,000 active volunteers, Butterfly Conservation has grown to become one of the largest insect conservation organisations in the world.

Start the count: the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme

Obtaining an accurate, up-to-date picture of species distribution and density is a crucial step in determining conservation strategies and solutions. The answer: the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS), jointly led by Butterfly Conservation, the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). An immense undertaking, the UKBMS mobilises trained volunteer networks all across the UK to record data on over 2,000 transect sites every year, collecting, monitoring and analysing the results to produce a dataset which has proved one of the most important resources for understanding changes in insect populations.

The latest UKBMS results from 2021 are a mixed bag. While there are promising signs of the success of concentrated conservation efforts, the ongoing threats faced by the UK’s butterfly population are hard to ignore. Poor weather was a major contributor to low recordings for common and widespread species, with 2021 marking a particularly bad year for England’s butterflies in particular. But while 2021 may have been below average, Butterfly Conservation’s analysis flags up promising results for many threatened species. The endangered Heath Fritillary, which has been the focus of long-term intensive conservation efforts in Kent, Essex and Somerset, has now increased 112% at monitored sites in the last decade, while Scotland’s butterflies in particular fared well: more species increased than decreased from 2020 levels, and several species had their best or second-best years on record.

Image of The Heath Fritillary butterfly,
The Heath Fritillary butterfly, copyright © Iain H Leach

Dr Richard Fox, Butterfly Conservation’s Associate Director of Recording and Monitoring, feels justified in being cautiously optimistic. “We’re delighted to be seeing some positive signs for species such as the Heath Fritillary, especially when the general long-term picture for UK butterflies is one of great decline. It reinforces the importance of managing and restoring habitat in a way that supports the survival of our butterflies. These successes demonstrate what can be achieved through dedicated long-term conservation effort.”

Dr Marc Botham, Butterfly Ecologist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, points to the crucial role the study plays in wider conversations around biodiversity, and “assessing the health of our countryside generally. The UKBMS data are vital in assessing the effectiveness of government policies and progress towards the UK’s biodiversity targets.” Sarah Harris, Breeding Bird Survey National Organiser at the British Trust for Ornithology, sketches this link between butterflies and the wider ecosystem. “These species are indicators of the health of our natural environment […] the information gleaned from the UKBMS data is not just used to help understand and conserve butterflies, but also to help understand and protect the wider ecosystem on which so many birds, mammals and other species rely.”

Conservation is key

Recording and monitoring butterfly populations is only the first step. The worrying trends revealed by the data indicate how critical it is that we take action now; to prevent further decline, and to build on the success of conservation efforts and reverse the damage that has already been done.

Butterfly Conservation has developed a bold conservation strategy: halve the number of the UK’s threatened species of butterflies and moths; improve the condition of 100 of the most important landscapes for butterflies and moths; and transform 100,000 wild spaces in the UK for people, butterflies and moths. Scaling up landscape-scale conservation projects, supporting nature-friendly farming networks, and cultivating urban sites to attract butterflies are merely a handful of the methods they are adopting to turn these ambitious goals into reality.

But while these initiatives are striving for change on a UK-wide scale, the organisation also highlights the role that individuals can play in creating a green space that is welcoming to butterflies, moths and other insects. As potential stepping stones between nature reserves and other natural habitats, gardens, however small, can attract many species of butterfly. Among their wide-ranging tips on creating a butterfly-friendly garden, Butterfly Conservation suggests choosing nectar plants like the easy-growing buddleia, sweet-scented purple perennial wallflower or popular favourite lavender to encourage butterflies into your garden.

Some say that the first butterfly of the year should be white for good luck; others say yellow. But this Mother Earth Day, any butterfly we see should be a reminder of how lucky we are to live in countries across the UK which are home to 59 different species of butterfly; and how important it is that we protect them.

More information on how you can support Butterfly Conservation and get involved in local conservation projects can be found here. To find out more about their work in general, visit www.butterfly-conservation.org or follow them on social media @savebutterflies.Banner of the butterfly conservation

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