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Take a few precious moments out of your busy day this week to participate in the biggest national butterfly survey, the Big Butterfly Count! You never know, you may well witness some truly special wildlife moments. Slow down and simply appreciate the wonderful animals and insects that we have living in our gardens while contributing to the environment at the same time...
Wildlife lovers across the country are getting involved with the Big Butterfly Count this month, a nationwide survey launched in 2010 by the Butterfly Conservation. The survey aims to help conservationists to assess the health of our natural environment and has drawn participants of all types, from families, students, and butterfly enthusiasts to HRH Prince Charles from his home in Highgrove, Gloucestershire. The Big Butterfly Count is backed by high-profile figures such as Sir David Attenborough, who is the President of the Butterfly Conservation, along with Alan Titchmarsh MBE, Mike Dilger, Nick Baker, and the actress Joanna Lumley OBE. Now it has become the world’s biggest survey of butterflies, and it only takes 15 minutes of your time to get involved.
Taking part in the Big Butterfly Count is a good reason to press pause on your busy schedule while engaging with nature at the same time. Research has suggested that watching wildlife can have positive benefits for your mental health and wellbeing, so it’s certainly worth taking part to see if it brings you a sense of calm. What could be more pleasant than settling yourself down in a comfortable chair by a window as you observe the different butterfly and moth species that visit your garden?
Our wonderful Great British butterflies
In Britain, we have 59 native butterfly species, two of which migrate to us from Europe every year; the Painted Lady and the Clouded Yellow. They are an essential part of our wildlife heritage and are studied and observed by the Butterfly Conservation, which is the world’s largest research institute for butterflies and moths and has over 30 nature reserves across the country.
Not only do butterflies and moths look beautiful, but we also need them because of the vital part they play in our ecosystem, pollinating our plants and providing a source of food for birds and bats. Some butterflies can even act as little helpers to gardeners by assisting with pest control, for example, the Harvester Butterfly eats aphids while in caterpillar form. While their pollination to plant reproduction ratios may not be in the same league as honey bees, they do carry pollen across further distances and there are several plant species, like milkweed and other wildflowers, which depend on butterflies to pollinate.
Why count butterflies?
Butterflies and moths are very delicate creatures and act as fantastic biodiversity indicators. They can be sensitive to the slightest change in their food chain, in the weather, or the health of plants. Much like a canary in a coal mine, any serious drops in their numbers are considered an urgent warning about our environment.
Every five years or so, the Butterfly Conservation and its partners publish a ‘state of the nation’ assessment of the UK’s butterflies. Sadly, these assessments show that our beautiful British butterflies are under threat. While no one knows exactly why, ecologists are putting declining numbers down to the changes in our climate, the increasing quantities of pesticides used in our agricultural industries, and the urban development of their natural habitats. Five of our butterfly species have become extinct in the last 150 years and overall, the situation is not improving. The last ‘State of the UK’s Butterflies’ report was in 2015, which showed that 76% of our butterflies have declined over the last 40 years with species such as the Wall butterfly and the Small Heath butterfly suffering the most.
There is some good news, however! The last couple of years has seen our more commonly seen species improve, mainly due to the unusually warm summers we have been experiencing. So far, the three white butterfly species have had a bumper summer, each seeing large increases compared to last year. The Small White seems to be the success story of the year overall, with an increase of 161% compared to the same period last year.
Further good news hails from East Midlands, where a stunningly pretty species of butterfly has been successfully bred for the first time after its last sighting in Northamptonshire more than 40 years ago. This exciting conservation project has led to the return of the Purple Emperor, which was last recorded in Norfolk in 1961. It was finally declared extinct there in the early 1970s, but experts at the Butterfly Conservation’s Norfolk branch have announced that they are back from the brink and could be breeding in the area.
How to take part in the Big Butterfly Count
In 2018, an impressive 100,000 people took part in the Big Butterfly Count, sending 97,133 counts of butterflies and day-flying moths from across the UK.
‘Help us take nature’s pulse’
– the Big Butterfly Count
Preferably, try to pick a bright and sunny part of the day to start your butterfly count. From a fixed position in your garden or glazed extension, count the maximum number of each species that you spot at a single time within a 15 minute period. For example, if you see two Common Blues then record them as 2 counts, but if you only see one at a time then record it as 1 (even if you saw one on several occasions) – this is so that you don’t count the same butterfly more than once. If you are doing your count on a walk through a park or field, then simply total up the number of each butterfly species that you see during the 15 minutes.
There’s an identification chart that you can download, which acts as a great visual aid if you’re counting with children. You can submit as many separate records for different dates from the same spot, and also for different locations. Remember that your count is useful even if you do not see any butterflies or moths at all in the 15 minutes. You can follow all the latest sightings, as they happen, on Twitter @RichardFoxBC or on Butterfly Conservation’s Facebook page.
Many thanks to Rachel from DIY Garden, who inspired us to write about the Big Butterfly Count with her highly informative ‘Ultimate Guide to Butterflies & How to Prevent Their Decline’ article. Take a look for more information about a butterfly’s life cycle, anatomy and how you can do your bit to help them.