Butterfly Conservation in the UK: From then to now

Butterflies have experienced a shocking 76% decline in the past 40 years, measured in terms of both abundance (number of a certain species in a given area) and occurrence (presence of a certain species in a given area). There are two broad types of butterflies, habitat specialists (only found in one type of habitat) and wider countryside (found across a variety of habitat types). The decline of habitat specialists is largely due to the loss and damage to habitats as a result of land-use change linked to the intensification of agriculture and changing nature of woodland management, whereas the causes for the decline of wider countryside butterflies remain poorly understood.

It is crucial for us to protect butterflies from decline and extinction, as they are not only pollinators partly responsible (among other species such as moths, bees and wasps) for providing us with food, but are also valuable indicators of the state of the wider environment. If butterflies start to decline rapidly, chances are the other aspects of our environment aren’t faring so well either.

On a positive note, some species have increased their distributions as a response to changes in our climate. Over the past 10 years, trends demonstrate that 52% of species decreased in abundance and 47% decreased in occurrence, far less alarming than the 70% rate of the past 40 years. Furthermore, recoveries have been seen in some areas, with the Duke of Burgundy, Pearl-bordered Fritillary and Dingy Skipper populations increasing. Habitat management and landscape conservation projects targeted at threatened species and their habitats have proved very successful, and techniques can, and should, be transferred to other species.

I have always loved butterflies. They are undeniably beautiful, and fascinating up close, with their marbled compound eyes and long, thin proboscis, perfectly adapted for dipping into even the deepest of flowers.

Butterfly proboscis, Flickr.

What’s more, they are inherently British, instantly springing to mind when thinking of our countryside lined with its many hedgerows.

Unlike many species, which have large ranges and require a large patch of intact and undisturbed habitat in order to thrive, butterflies need a variety of small, fragmented habitats, as they move from one to the other, pollinating a variety of different flowers and, in spring, laying their eggs. These habitat requirements are well suited to our current land use habits, which are focused at a fine scale due to agriculture.

Gatekeeper butterfly, Jane Wheeler.

The good thing about all of this is that butterfly conservation has a strong potential to be successful, as it can be integrated into current agricultural practices (farmers leaving a small plot of their land for conservation purposes and allowing native plants to grow) and demands relatively little effort compared to the benefits reaped!

This prompted me to get involved with my local branch of the Butterfly Conservation charity, walking a transect each week along a fixed route and surveying butterfly populations along that route, submitting data to a central database.

As a charitable organisation, what is interesting about Butterfly Conservation is that they rely on citizen science for pretty much all of their data, which in turn informs government policy. 15,000 volunteers across the country dedicate time and effort every year to recording species occurrences in their local area and submitting data to the central database, so that BC can analyse this to monitor changes in populations and paint an accurate picture of fluctuations and present states to inform future conservation decision-making.

Since their inception, they have built, and continue to build, strong relationships with local landowners, who allow use of a portion of their land for conservation purposes, or integrate conservation advice into their farming techniques. Furthermore, they enjoy partnerships with many influential organisations, such as the British Trust for Ornithology, The Wildlife Trusts, Bug Life and Plant Life.

They have a far smaller budget than organisations such as the RSPB and international organisations like WWF, but spend most of their budget on habitat management and landscape conservation projects (which is the most costly aspect of what they do).

Red Admiral on the Buddleia in my garden. Photo my own.

This seemingly winning combination of good relationships with local landowners, effective partnerships with other conservation organisations, small-scale landscape conservation projects, citizen science and big data analysis can teach us a great deal about how to enact successful conservation, especially at a time when public expenditure on environmental issues is so low.

BC are in always in need of new volunteers, especially young ones! If you are interested in donating some of your time to protecting local wildlife and its habitats, and influencing the conservation of one of the UK’s best-loved insects, please visit BC’s website, and email your local branch chair.

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Joanna Trewern

Joanna Trewern

RSPCA Wildlife Care Assistant and recent MSc Conservation, Biodiversity & Management graduate from the University of Oxford. Interests in British wildlife, rewilding, conservation communication and education.

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