Beautiful butterflies are sign of environment’s health

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Last week I spoke of how my love of invertebrates -and in particular - butterflies, led to life-long career in horticulture.

This week, I would like to continue on my butterfly theme as there is increasing public awareness and concern about these wonderful flying jewels, and their decline, over recent years..

Many of the major wildlife and horticultural organisations are helping the cause of the butterfly, as these are a visible sign of the health of our environment. Butterfly Conservation hold an annual butterfly count and this is now the world’s biggest survey of butterflies, with over 46,000 people taking part in 2013 – counting an impressive 830,000 individual butterflies and day-flying moths across the UK.

On our site at Manea, I have seen a year-on-year increase of butterflies, both in species and numbers over the last 30 years. This is completely contradictory to well publicised decline in the UK as a whole, with butterflies being one of our most threatened wildlife groups in spite of increased conservation expenditure(butterfly-organisation.org). 2012 was described as “the worst year on record for UK butterflies” after wet and windy weather disrupted breeding and although numbers significantly increased in the warm and sunny conditions of 2013, the weather this summer (August was the coldest since 1993) has again been less than ideal for them.

Butterfly numbers have nearly halved in the last four decades. Yes, since the time that I was catching them in my youth. I confess that, like many keen naturalists back then, I used to catch them to observe, with a few specimens killed (humanely, I must add) and mounted on boards. I will not take responsibility for the decline in numbers, as my interest in them has actually helped me to understand what we can do to help them.

Habitat destruction is accepted as one of the main reasons for their demise. We are, as a nation, now aware of this – hedgerows are being re-planed, roadside verges left un-cut for longer.

Our gardens can be like mini-nature reserves on out doorsteps, providing vital habitats for all sorts of wild-life, including butterflies.

Providing a range of suitable nectar plants for the adults is a good start. The RHS have lists of ‘plants for pollinators’ on their web-site, as does the UKbutterflies site, among others. However, we also have to think about their young – the caterpillars. Very few species of butterfly would ever be considered as ‘pests’ on our garden plants. Most prefer wild flowers, or ‘weeds’. This does not mean you have an excuse not to do the garden – but awareness of what food plants are required by the caterpillars may help you feel less guilty about tackling the ‘overgrown’ areas!

Here are a few wild food sources on our site that are helping the butterflies of Manea build up their numbers: Docks, sorrel, nettles, brambles, holly, ivy, birds-foot trefoil, ladies smock, alder – plus areas of long mixed meadow grasses (good for many species of ‘brown’ butterflies). There are 58 species of butterfly to be found in the UK. We have recorded 20 species here – from brimstones, orange tips and holly blues in the spring to our late summer visitors of painted ladies, commas, peacocks and admirals.

They make gardening worthwhile!

Happy Gardening,