Peacock Butterfly on dandelion © Stephen Gardner

Fluttering Away

28th May 2010

They used to mock men who ran about trying to catch butterflies with nets. As populations among some species hit new lows, collecting is very much frowned upon today, but, as Jack Watkins discovered, butterflies still retain their capacity to delight….

I’ve long prided myself, not always delusively, on my receptivity to nature. I revel in the variety of British landscapes, from the rugged granite uplands of the north, to the softer chalk downlands of the southern counties. I make mental notes of trees, wildlflowers and birds spotted on a walk, whether in the town or the country. It’s a matter of mild irritation when I see something I cannot identify. An appreciation of butterflies, however, has generally eluded me, so much so that I was not even aware of the fact until last summer.
Researching an article, on a bright morning I joined a student who, in his spare time, undertook counts for the charity Butterfly Conservation. His ‘territory’ was a 2.5 km stretch of sward on a downland escarpment near Lewes, in East Sussex. His task was to walk a set route every week between April and September, counting the butterflies he saw. Our walk was a revelation. While I gazed vacantly at the turf ahead, my companion was soon busily putting a name to various specks that were flashing away to either side of us – a Brown Argus here, a Silver-spotted Skipper there, or, glory of glories, an Adonis Blue. I realised to my shame that despite them being under my very nose and, once you got your eye in, not so very difficult to spot, I’d been missing an awful lot over all these years.

Butterfly hunters of Victorian times were often mocked for partaking in what many deemed a trivial pastime. One man was so obsessed with catching a Purple Emperor – or ‘His Imperial Majesty’ as it was otherwise reverently titled – that he concocted a 50ft net to trap one. No-one denied how dashingly attractive some species were, but what sort of adult was it who wasted so much time on such seemingly inconsequential creatures?

Today, a growing number of identification guides, as well as articles in the press, suggest that an interest in butterflies is on the rise again. There must be a myriad of reasons, not least the marvel of the butterfly life cycle… the egg that hatches into a caterpillar, which then becomes a chrysalis, from which ultimately emerges this creature of delicate-winged delight. Then there is the wonder of migration. The feat of tiny birds which annually make their way to our shores from Africa each spring seems incredible enough, but what are we to make of fragile butterflies that travel similar distances?
Britain has around 70 species of butterflies, nearly 60 of which are resident throughout the year. About two thirds of them are scarce, though, and dependent upon highly specialised habitats like chalk grasslands, ancient or managed woodland, or mountain terrain. This country has a long, proud tradition of conservation and research, with monitoring of population numbers started by scientists in the 1970s. It means that a solid body of statistics has built up on how these species are faring, and the trends are not healthy.

In Gerald and Lee Durrell’s classic practical guide to the natural world, The Amateur Naturalist, first published in 1982, there’s a handy section on collecting butterflies, complete with diagrams of nets and how to use them. While there’s a reminder to ‘never keep a specimen unnecessarily’, today the book is a sign of how quickly times have changed. Collecting is no longer considered acceptable now that butterfly population has been shown to have gone into steep decline.

Green Hairstreak © Paul Thrush

A succession of wet summers has not helped: butterflies struggle to fly, feed and breed in wet conditions. Following another poor year in 2009, Butterfly Conservation reported that numbers are continuing to plummet or, that for some species they ‘remain at rock bottom levels’. One of the saddest declines has been that of the Pearl-bordered Fritillary. A habitué of woodland clearings, it was fondly known as ‘the woodman’s friend’ in times past. As the woodcutter made his way through the wood, cutting down clumps of trees, the butterflies would seem to follow them, as if aware that in the new clearings, flowers would germinate from which they could feed. Its plight is a result of the decline of woodland management and coppicing. By contrast, my student friend’s favourite, the strikingly iridescent Adonis Blue, has suffered from the loss of the traditional, close-cropped downland sward which allowed its caterpillar food plant, the horseshoe vetch, to thrive.

But it’s not simply the rarer species that are finding the going tough, according to Butterfly Conservation’s UK Monitoring Scheme. Relatively common ones like the Wall Brown, Small Skipper and Green Hairstreak have also been recorded at lower numbers. Others, though, have thrived in damper conditions, and the numbers of Painted Ladies – slightly more muted versions of the Red Admiral – some of which fly here from North Africa, were reported as booming in 2009. There’s a widespread fear, however, that as well as being victims of the usual factors such as change in agricultural practices and the spread of pollution, butterflies are acting like canaries down a mineshaft as early indicators of the impact of climate change.

Butterfly Conservation is only able to compile its data on the ebb and flow of species thanks to the efforts of volunteers around the country. In 2009, the numbers of sites monitored passed one thousand for the first time. New recruits are always wanted.

The Hertfordshire and Middlesex Wildlife Trust (HMWT) has several reserves which are prime butterfly-spotting territory, and where much monitoring and recording takes place. According to Sarah Buckingham of the Trust, species common in Hertfordshire include the Green Hairstreak, the Brown Argus and the Small Copper. More rarely spotted are the Dingy and Grizzled Skippers, both in decline across Britain.

Balls Wood, near Hertford Heath, is an especially good location for butterflies, particularly White Admirals. Explains Sarah: “Our woodland management here is directed at improving conditions for butterflies. We’re opening up glades to make them sunnier… which enables more plants to grow and flower, providing food for the butterflies and their caterpillars. The glades also provide warm and sheltered conditions for the butterflies to display.”

Sarah says that major works were completed last winter, and that more are planned over the next five years, making it not only good for butterflies, but ‘for people to watch butterflies too’.

Meanwhile, work to restore the chalk grasslands of Aldbury Nowers, at Tring, is encouraging Small Blues, Dark Green Fritillaries and Dingy Skippers. It’s another favourite spot for butterfly watching – although identifying butterflies is not easy for a beginner, so do be warned. Distinguishing between various types of fritillaries, blues, hairstreaks and coppers is head-scratching territory. Obviously many favour different types of habitat, and a bit of swotting beforehand can narrow lists down. Don’t expect to see many on a rainy day, either: butterflies are most active in warm, sunny conditions. The HMWT runs special walks, and it’s certainly worth letting an expert gently introduce you to the subject. My ‘session’ last year hasn’t turned me into a lepidopterist by any means… but it opened my eyes to a bright little world at my feet that, hitherto, I’d scarcely known had existed.

The Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust is running the following events, recommended as good starting points for anyone interested in learning more about butterflies:

Saturday 10 July, 10 to 11.30am - Butterfly Guided Walk: Stanmore Common, with the Harrow Local Group,
Sunday 25 July, 2pm - Butterfly & Bug Walk: Pryor’s Wood Nature Reserve, nr Stevenage

For more details visit www.hertswildlifetrust.co.uk

Butterfly Conservation’s Herts and Middlesex branch has more info on how to get involved with monitoring butterflies: www.hertsmiddx-butterflies.org.uk

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