Butterflies numbers are sadly declining.
Over the last 40 years, UK butterfly numbers are estimated to have fallen by 75 per cent, with some species, such as the High Brown Fritillary almost being wiped out.
Four butterfly species and over 60 moths have already become extinct in the last century, while the remaining species are today under serious threat from destructive changes to their environment.
To explain more, and to see how we can help, we spoke to Richard Fox, Head of Recording at Butterfly Conservation and the man leading the Big Butterfly Count monitoring project.
Richard says: “The main issue is that their habitat is being destroyed. As farming has become more intensive, farmers have removed thick hedges and wild flowers that would have bordered wheat or barley fields to make larger, less fragmented fields that are more efficient – all good for keeping the price of a loaf down, but terrible for wildlife who make their home in these bordering hedges.
“The growing agricultural use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, which kills insects and reduces the richness of wild plants, has also had a big impact.”
Similarly, changes to the way woodlands are used have caused problems. “In the olden days, woodlands were much sunnier places with nice open clearings where wild flowers would grow on the woodland floor, attracting butterflies. Now woods are darker, shadier places – not so attractive for butterflies and their caterpillars.
“The weather this year, with a slow spring and soggy summer, hasn’t done butterflies any favours, either, as they sit pretty waiting out the rain rather than laying eggs and breeding, which means fewer baby butterflies and that has a knock-on effect for future generations.”
What can we do?
The good news is that butterflies are, to some extent, their own best conservationists, able to multiply in numbers rapidly, provided we give them a gentle helping hand.
Help with habitats
While obviously we can’t control the weather, we can make sure there are suitable habitats for them to breed and thrive in when the weather’s good at which point, female butterflies can lay between 300 and 400 eggs, the majority of which will, fingers crossed, turn into butterflies.
Planting fragrant herbs such as oregano and marjoram is really attractive to the lovely orange and brown butterfly, the Gatekeeper, while flowering lavender will bring in some of the white butterflies.
Purple and pink flowers, such as buddleia, red valerian and verbena attract big colourful butterflies like Red Admirals, Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells.
Get them cosy for winter
Certain species of butterfly hibernate for the winter in sheds, garages and sometimes even people’s houses and will often start looking for a place to rest early while the weather’s still warm.
However, if they decide your spare room curtains are a good winter residence it’s best to try to encourage them outside. This is because come deep winter when the central heating is on, the butterflies will wake up from hibernation, sending their body clocks completely out of kilter and in some cases, killing them.
If you do find one settled in your house in winter, try to relocate them while they’re still asleep, either into a more suitable non-heated building like a shed, or put them outside on a mild day so they can choose a better place to hunker down.
Join the Big Butterfly Count
Now in its seventh year, the Big Butterfly Count helps Butterfly Conservation find out how out common butterfly species are faring and how to protect them.
The annual count runs until August 7 and it’s easy to join in. Simply find a sunny spot and spend 15 minutes counting the butterflies you see, then record the sighting online at www.bigbutterflycount.org or via the free Big Butterfly Count app. Pictured above are a few of the butterfly species you might spot.
Don’t be too tidy…
One of the best things we can do for butterflies is to encourage species to breed in our gardens by:
- Growing ivy – which is a haven for all sorts of wildlife, but especially for the little Holly Blue butterfly. Ivy flowers are an amazing source of late nectar, so resist the urge to trim back your ivy fence in autumn.
- Makingbeds – butterflies can hibernate as adults, as caterpillars or pupae and many of them do this among dead leaves or the remnants of summer garden growth. Try to avoid being too tidy – a little pile of dead leaves and plants at the back of your garden will make a much-loved winter bed for butterflies.
- Letting the lawn grow long – just a foot-long strip at the bottom of the garden will do. Caterpillars of big butterflies such as Speckled Wood, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown and Ringlet love grass but won’t set up on a mown lawn.