The butterfly effect

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A peacock butterfly, which has seen numbers fall by 58 per cent, according to the Butterfly Conservation Picture: Keely Woodberry

You may recall that round about this time last year I wrote about the dwindling numbers of our beautiful butterfly population, with many familiar species in long-term decline, such as the Small Tortoiseshell and the Common White (large and small).

So I was delighted to hear about a recent report from the charity Butterfly Conservation which stated that, following a prolonged spell of decline after successive poor summers, overall numbers have ‘bounced back’ after the long, warm and dry summer of 2018.

According to the report, numbers of the endangered Black Hairstreak boomed by more than 900% compared to 2017, while the threatened Large Blue was up 58% over the same period. This was attributed to the good weather in early summer, which is when these species fly, along with cold snaps in February and March which will have helped the survival of caterpillars and chrysalises.

The common whites have also fared well, with the Large White up 115% and the Small White 158% after a run of poor years.

Unfortunately, the news is not so good for the Small Tortoiseshell, which was down 38% and the Peacock, which fell by 58%, a worry when you know that the Tortoiseshell’s large namesake is already extinct. The reduction in numbers was attributed the prolonged drought conditions last June and July which were detrimental to the survival of late-emerging caterpillars.

One of the most severely affected was the Red Admiral butterfly which saw its numbers crash by 75% after a good year in 2017. Had he been here, my dad would have been very sad to hear this, having written about this particular species in his column from 28th April 1979. It was there that I discovered that butterflies like the Red Admiral are rather amazing.

We all know about the astounding journeys made by birds from countries like Africa to our shores, but what I didn’t know was that there are a few butterflies that do that very same migratory journey, including the Red Admiral. Although it is officially considered a ‘resident’ species to the UK, it has established itself relatively recently and only in small numbers in the south of England as most cannot survive our cold winters. The UK has 59 species in total, and only two of those are truly migratory, which are the Painted Lady and the Clouded Yellow.

The vast majority of Red Admirals head south in the autumn to warmer climes, where they hibernate, but then return to Europe in late spring when their food sources become abundant again, enabling them to breed.

It’s almost impossible to fathom how something as delicate as a butterfly can make such a perilous crossing, but they fly high on air currents which help to carry them along, expending as little energy as possible. Most will stop and breed along the way in Southern Europe, before continuing further north as the weather here gets warmer. It is unlikely than one individual butterfly will do the whole journey, but like a migrating relay team, they produce offspring en route that will continue the pilgrimage.

Although 2018 was considered, for the most part, good for butterflies, severe weather events like last summer do have significant long-term impacts on our flora and fauna, and butterflies are not out of the woods, with two-thirds of our species showing negative tends over the long term. But there are things we can do in our own back yards to help, and I would encourage you to visit ‘butterfly-conservation.org’ to find out what simple things you can do to help the struggling insect and butterfly population as it is the disappearance of their habitats that is the main cause for their decline.

There is a trend, which I can’t get my head around, of people swapping their natural lawn for artificial grass, and I have also seen fake topiary-style ornaments and hanging baskets adorning some homes. These plastic alternatives might be convenient, but they are not providing any of the essential elements of a natural garden, namely pollen and insects which are essential for the survival of our wildlife. If we let our pollinators disappear, the consequences for the environment and the food chain will be catastrophic.

How awful would it be if, after their perilous journeys across land and sea, these beautiful creatures then disappear because we have decimated their habitats. We mustn’t let that happen.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 26th April and the Gazette & Herald on 124th April 2019

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