• Butterfly Conservation

    We’ve heard that bees are in danger… but what about butterflies and moths?

A guest blog by Butterfly Conservation, www.butterfly-conservation.org

Butterflies and moths are in decline. Like bees, these charismatic insects are suffering from the combined blows of habitat loss and fragmentation caused by humanity’s ever-growing ecological footprint. This, combined with decades of chemical warfare from artificial insecticides, means that two thirds of UK moths and three quarters of UK butterflies are in decline. These are worrying statistics.

Bees are the headline grabbers in these harrowing times, with major concerns about ecosystem services, pesticide usage and food production. Bees are undoubtedly the most commercially significant group of insects (followed by hoverflies) when it comes to getting food on our plates, but it’s the diversity of pollinators that is important for the pollination of all wild flowering plants. Pollination underpins all flower-rich habitats and their biodiversity further up the food chain. Recent research shows that moths are the most important nocturnal pollinators, and while there isn’t any clear evidence that moths play an important role as crop pollinators, they may play vital ecological roles as pollinators of many wild plants.

 

Small copper butterfly

 

As the UK’s charity that protects butterflies, moths and our environment, Butterfly Conservation have been working hard to halt these declines. We divide up the butterfly species into ‘specialists’, the fussy species with very narrow habitat preferences, and then ‘generalists’, the butterflies that you see (albeit less so today) in gardens and the wider countryside. Unsurprisingly, the specialists have been in trouble for a long time. Whether it was the decline of traditional woodland management or the loss of semi-natural grasslands in favour of more productive pasture for livestock, the general intensification of land management and agriculture started impacting these fussier species a long time ago.

Luckily, thousands of people love butterflies enough to devote their free time to counting them (and you can too). The data collected by volunteers since 1976 allows us to track the status and trends of all UK species, thus making butterflies the ‘canary of the coalmine’ in insect terms. Butterflies and moths are among the best studied insects in the UK and are therefore recognised as indicators of the state of the environment… and it’s not looking good. We have successfully improved the fortunes of some specialist species through working locally with farmers and building habitat networks at the landscape scale. However, there is growing evidence that our more common, generalist species are suffering as much as the fussy specialists, despite their skills for adaptation. Indeed, a number of ‘wider countryside’ species now rank among the most severely declining UK butterflies. Trends in England for farmland habitats show a 57% decline in abundance between 1976-2014. Rolling the clock forward, the decline in farmland butterflies stands at 37% between 2005-2014. And it’s not just about the number of butterflies: using our recording dataset, we have shown that the chances of seeing these species (their occurrence) has also plummeted, with wider countryside species decreasing by 24% in the frequency of occurrence across the UK. Put simply, it’s becoming harder to find somewhere to see our commonest species and when we do see them, there are fewer of them.

 

Small elephant hawk moth

 

We undertook research with the Universities of Sussex and Stirling and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology which showed that the number of hectares of farmland where neonicotinoid pesticides are used is negatively associated with butterfly indices. The study found population trends of 15 species showed declines associated with neonicotinoid use, including Small Tortoiseshell, Small Skipper and Wall species. Further toxicological research shows that even wildflower strips planted on neonicotinoid-contaminated land continue to impact upon Common Blue Butterfly larvae, resulting in increased mortality and reduced growth in the early stages of development.

Maintaining strong populations of butterflies and moths in a well-connected and diverse countryside will generate multiple benefits for species higher up the food chain that depend on them, such as bats and birds. Creating more butterfly and moth-friendly farmland will support habitats for a wide variety of other pollinators and insects – including those commercially crucial bees. The tools to deliver these outcomes are well known: conserve priority habitats and species, look after and buffer pockets of semi-natural habitats, decrease the intensiveness of farmland, halt the use of damaging chemicals, encourage better connectivity of habitats (hedgerows and field margins), encourage hedgerow trees, leave areas uncut over winter and create more flower rich areas to provide vital pollen and nectar resources.

Riverford have the right idea. Founder Guy Singh-Watson understands implicitly that without a functioning ecosystem, farming will fail. Whether it’s protecting soils, watercourses or wild areas, organic farming works with nature to help butterflies, moths and a whole suite of invertebrates. In short, Riverford chooses butterflies and moths.

 

swallow tailed moth

 

More about Butterfly Conservation

Butterfly Conservation is the UK charity dedicated to saving butterflies, moths and our environment. Butterflies and moths are key indicators of the health of our environment. They connect us to nature and contribute to our wellbeing. Three quarters of the UK’s butterfly species have declined during the last decade; this is a warning that cannot be ignored. Butterfly Conservation improves landscapes for butterflies and moths, creating a better environment for us all.

https://butterfly-conservation.org/