It is the time of year to count butterflies. The Big Butterfly Count is a citizen science project, aiming to get people all over the UK counting butterflies so we can build up a picture of how butterfly numbers are doing for the commonest butterfly species. Butterflies are great to count. In general, they are easy to identify. They are pretty and therefore popular insects. And they depend on food sources being present for both adult and larva (caterpillar). As such they are an excellent indicator of the health of ecosystems. Plenty of butterflies, and plenty of butterfly diversity indicates that there is plenty of plant food, and a diversity of plant food. It is also an indication that there is plenty of food available for birds, bats and other insectivores including reptiles, amphibia and mammals.
We have counted butterflies in our meadows for a number of years. The numbers of different species do fluctuate from year to year, as weather and other conditions change. What has been remarkable is the steady improvement in diversity of species and count within species, although there have been a few blips. In the first year our meadow was planted, we saw quite a few brown argus; this year we haven’t had any. But last year we only saw one dingy skipper and this year we have seen several. Common blue numbers have been quite constant, but six-spot burnet (day-flying moth), meadow brown, ringlet, gatekeeper, small skipper, large skipper and Essex skipper have all gone up. The white butterflies are also doing well this year, as are speckled woods, which were almost totally absent last year. Tantalising glimpses of the purple hairstreaks among the oak canopy also suggest their numbers are holding up. Brimstones and orange-tips were present in relatively large numbers this spring, as were green-veined whites. In general, the situation is improving in our meadow, and this is exciting.
It has not just been a good year for butterflies: there have been good numbers of dragonflies and a good diversity of species too. We have noted common blue, large red, azure, white-legged, blue-tailed, emerald and banded demoiselle damselflies, and common darter, four-spotted chaser, broad-bodied chaser, brown hawker, Southern hawker and emperor dragonflies. And a hobby (falcon) has moved in to feed on them!
What this shows is that in spite of dreadful weather over the past two years (drought, washout summer last year, extremely cold and late spring this year), insect numbers can flourish provided the habitat is provided for them. It doesn’t even need to be a huge amount of habitat, just a bit of connected habitat makes all the difference. Butterflies abound in the hay field opposite our woods too.
The problem is that this good news is not typical. Grassland butterflies have declined by 50% in Europe over the last 20 years. This has been put down to intensification of agriculture in easy-to-farm areas and abandonment of areas that are not easy to farm. Both result in degradation of grassland habitats, and in turn, the reduction in butterfly numbers and diversity. Meadows need maintenance, be it by mowing for fodder, or by grazing, or both. This strips off the grass that would otherwise dominate, allowing wildflowers to grow. Abandon the meadows and they revert to grass. Plough them up, and it is very hard, if not impossible to return them to their unimproved state. Added to that, widespread use of insecticides reduce the opportunities for those butterflies that can find foodplants for their caterpillars and nectar for the adults.
Meadows are very precious, but many butterflies can live on very common plants, and leaving a corner of the garden unimproved, letting it go over to nettles and wildflowers can really make a difference to nettle-feeding butterflies such as small tortoiseshell and peacock. If we manicure our gardens, cover them in gravel and decking, squeeze productivity out of every inch of farmland, and stop mowing or grazing our meadows, we will lose butterflies, and with them, many other species. We also mow our roadside verges short, several times a year. Letting areas run to wildflowers would also make a massive difference, as the Plantlife roadside verge campaign points out.
Do we care? I don’t know. Almost everybody I know bemoans the loss of butterflies and birds over the last 50 years. But whether they are able or willing to do so is another matter. Are we willing to tolerate a bit less tidiness in our roadside verges and gardens? Or will we complain to the Council the minute the grass gets longer than 3 inches? Will we complain about our neighbours letting the garden run to weeds? Are we willing to pay a bit more for good hay, for naturally-grazed animals, or to allow subsidies to go to those who uphold the most valuable habitats? Or do we just want cheap food at any cost?
The fact is that the butterfly-filled meadows of my youth are rare and getting progressively rarer. If children today don’t experience them, they won’t be able to appreciate their importance, won’t value them, and won’t protect them in future. Butterflies DO count. So, please, do count your butterflies this weekend, and contribute to the project. And DO think of them and the habitat they need. A little bit of untidiness won’t kill anybody, but too much tidiness will definitely kill off the butterflies.