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Butterfly Conservation in the 21st century
By Ashley Whitlock August 2020
Rural Britain has completely altered since the end of World War two. In the last 70 odd years an area of unspoilt countryside the size of Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Oxfordshire and Hampshire, has been built upon, and as I write these words, it looks like ‘Britain’s build, build policy since the ‘Lockdown’ will probably put another few more thousands of acres under concrete. Whilst the open countryside between these expanding towns and cities, has also been changed by man, the dangerous policy of the Green Belt, being gradually eaten away, by expanding small towns and villages. The lust for more housing and industrial and retail parks, hell bent on moving out of the dying city centres.
Lowland Fens have been drained, 50% of all ancient deciduous woods have been felled and over 60% of the unique lowland heaths have disappeared. Each year about 400 miles of hedgerow are grubbed out, to make fields larger to grow crops, where our ever increasing population shows no stopping or slowing down. 95% of flower rich meadows, as valuable as a source of nectar for butterflies and moths have been lost to the plough. Although over the last decade there have great efforts to redress this, with many areas of ploughed land being taken out of food production, and left to a natural process of ‘rewilding’ which is the watchword now for modern conservation.
Industrialization and Urbanization have triumphed as habitats have disappeared as does the local wildlife. Butterflies have particularly suffered because they require such a delicate balance in their environment. Their numbers fall once pollution or habitat disturbance begins, A fine example of this is the HS2 Railway link from London to the Midlands and then on up to the North of England. Once habitat disturbance begins, butterflies are viewed as a barometer, indicating the health of the countryside. Although Conservationists cannot entirely prevent Industrial, development they can campaign to protect and maintain areas of the countryside where butterfly colonies are significant.
Some of the dangers of butterfly species are not immediately obvious. When the Large Blue became extinct in 1979, it was partly because of some of the Thyme covered hillsides where it lived had been destroyed by ploughing, but a change in the nature of the habitat was also a major factor. The butterfly has always survived on areas of grassland which is constantly grazed by sheep, or rabbits, because the Large Blues caterpillar spent part of its life underground in ant’s nests, and the ants themselves only survive where the turf is short. As grazing became uneconomical, farmers removed their sheep from the hillsides. Also the Rabbits died in there thousands due to re-occurring Myxomatosis disease which struck Britain. So eventually the ant colonies have died out and with them the Large Blue disappeared from Britain.
In recent years butterfly experts have learnt about the conservation requirements of the Large Blue and its complex life-cycle, especially from Sweden and other sites in Europe where it’s far more common. The Large Blue was re-introduced from similar European stock to protected managed sites in the West Country in Somerset, and later into Gloucestershire, at Rodbourgh Common and Daneway Banks near Stroud and during the summers of 1986 and 1988 adult butterflies could be seen again on the wing egg-laying, at Green Hill near Glastonbury. Some sites now have public access, and numbers have grown and counts have been in access of 10,000 at one site. Fortunately habitat management for Butterfly Conservation has become very popular within county naturalists trusts. Because we now know that butterflies remain fairly close to the area where they emerge all over the country the character of many sites are being maintained, so that habitat will maintain the butterflies so they can increase. No single habitat should look at in isolation, because the variety of butterflies survive in one area, an equal amount of conditions will be necessary.
A re-introduction of the Chequered Skipper into Rockingham Forest in Northamptonshire. The butterfly still survives today in Scotland, but it disappeared in England 40 odd years ago. Its habitat requirements were/are totally different from its Scottish cousins. So the re-introduced specimens were imported from Belgium, where the conditions for the butterflies were almost identical to that of the habitat created and maintained in Northamptonshire. Today the butterfly has been kept secret from the public so far to maintain its survival, and in 2020 the success of the butterfly is being closely monitored, by local naturalists, and the butterfly has been seen breeding there, and has expanded into many of the rides which have been created for the specie’s over the last few seasons.
As we know butterflies needs are very complex an equally varied set of habitats are needed within the overall larger habitat. For instance the Peacock and Red Admiral two of our most common butterflies, which can be seen quite often seen feeding in our gardens on Buddleia bushes, are there because a small patch of Nettles in a neighbour’s garden provided the food for the caterpillars. Downland is probably one of the most important habitats, certainly in the southern part of England, over the last 50 years many of the areas supporting good quality habitat has been lost, either neglected, where it has scrubbed over, or sheep have been over grazing.
Adonis Blue butterflies and Silver-Spotted Skipper need heavily cropped chalk sward, especially on south facing land scrapes. These have become very rare now, but fortunately with the good will of butterfly conservation some areas