Attenborough applauds our hunt for Britain's butterflies

Quest to find endangered treasures of natural world is praised by conservationists and politicians

Sir David Attenborough and Boris Johnson were among conservationists and politicians who yesterday rushed to support The Independent’s Great British Butterfly Hunt.

We hope to offer some relief from the economic gloom by helping readers to find, watch and delight in the UK’s 58 native butterfly species this summer – at least a dozen of which are at their lowest ever levels.

Mr Johnson said: “The Independent’s Great British Butterfly Hunt is a superb initiative. In London we are blessed with an abundance of green spaces and a wide range of butterflies such as the holly blue and the brimstone. I would encourage people to get out in the sunshine and see how many fantastic varieties they can spot. It is a free, fun afternoon with the family.”

The environmentalist Stanley Johnson, Boris’s father, is working with Natural England to bring the once-populous high brown fritillary – a large, powerful, bracken-loving butterfly – back to Exmoor. “I commend this campaign by The Independent and give it all my support,” said Mr Johnson Snr last night. “Butterflies are so superb.”

Sir David said the excitement of watching the vibrant insects should be tempered with concern about their destruction. “Humanity has encroached upon and degraded so much of the land that the countryside is in severe crisis,” he said. “Pollution, habitat destruction, urban developments and intensive agriculture have all contributed to a great loss in wildlife in both numbers and variety.

“Butterflies, once widespead, have been seriously affected and others have become extinct. They are not just beautiful creatures to observe. They also have a wider value. They give us warnings of environmental dangers. This needs to be the spur for us to stem and reverse this tide.”

The campaign has captured the imagination of the public, with many already posting butterfly sightings on The Independent’s website. One contributor, Gerry Smith, noted: “Last Saturday the peacocks emerged in Herts – several seen in St Albans and Rye Meads. Hello summer!”

Another of the campaign’s supporters is wildlife photographer and filmmaker Simon King, vice-president of The Wildlife Trusts. He said yesterday: “Nature’s calendar is punctuated by mini miracles; the first song of a blackbird in spring or the reedy whistle of a redwing to herald autumn. And if there is one signpost that speaks of summer sun it is the flight of the butterflies. The fragile grace of these ephemeral marvels is perhaps the most subtle and understated fanfare of natural harmony in the British Isles.”

Wildlife photographer and television presenter Chris Packham said that Butterfly Conservation’s monitoring scheme and the Great British Butterfly Hunt were excellent examples of the “amateur naturalist collecting great data”.

“Our butterflies are buckling under the stress of a beleaguered environment due to issues like the use of insecticides and pesticides,” he said. “I saw only one small tortoiseshell last year, there weren’t even any in my garden. When will we act?”

“Climate change is having a serious impact on our butterfly species, and we need as much information as possible about their changing habitat and populations so we can help conserve them, " agrees Defra Minister for Wildlife Huw Irranca-Davies. "Butterfly Conservation’s work on tracking them is invaluable, and I welcome the Independent’s campaign to get people more involved.“

"Butterflies need good habitats to thrive. Already 65% of English farmland is covered by the Government’s environmentally-friendly farming schemes to help conserve our wildlife, and I would encourage everyone to do their bit – from spotting butterflies to doing what they can to attract wildlife in their own neighbourhood.”

Wingtips: How to spot butterflies

*Butterflies are active in warm sunny weather, so choose days when the air temperature is above 14C and there is at least 50 per cent sun.

*Butterflies are most active from 10am to 4.30pm.

*Most species like sheltered, sunny positions to bask or feed. Try sheltered gardens, parks, derelict land, hedgerows, tall grasses, bramble, wild flowers, woodland clearings or south-facing slopes (take care).

*Certain garden plants are magnets. Butterflies visit to drink nectar through a long coiled proboscis (like a drinking straw). In spring, try dandelions and sweet rocket. In summer: buddleia (the "butterfly bush"), scabious, thistles, brambles and herbs in flower like marjoram and thyme.

*Approach slowly. They have all-round vision. Any quick movement will make them take off.

*If you are lucky enough to live near chalk or limestone grassland, several beautiful and rare species of blue butterfly thrive in shorter-grazed vegetation.

*Carry a picture guide or poster.

*Binoculars can be very useful.

*Follow a flying butterfly to where it lands to feed. This sometimes offers a better look at its underside markings, helpful for identifying species like the green-veined white.

*Three don'ts. Don't handle caterpillars; they are delicate. Don't catch butterflies with bare hands; their scaly wings do not regenerate. And try not to trample vegetation or wild flowers which may be used for breeding.

Joining the Butterfly Hunt

Whether as an afternoon diversion from a picnic, or a summer-long quest to track all 58 of Britain's butterfly species, The Independent's Great British Butterfly Hunt aims to offer a glimpse of the beauty and fragility of our rich natural heritage.

And for those of our readers with a competitive edge, we offer a competition. The aim: to see as many of our native butterfly types as possible. The prize is an afternoon tracking the most elusive, the brown hairstreak, with expert Dr Martin Warren. It is the very last of UK butterflies to emerge (at the end of August), medium-sized and brown, with distinct "tails" on the hindwings. This hidden wonder of a creature can best be spotted by the "white pinprick" of an egg, laid on blackthorn.

The winner's rail travel expenses within the UK will be covered and lunch provided.

We encourage entrants of all ages. Simply send us, by Monday 17 August, 12pm, your butterfly diary. Briefly list each native species you see; the date and time; and the exact location. And please add one very brief description (no more than 250 words) of your butterfly hunt.

The judges will take into account the number of species spotted and also the description.

Enter by post (Butterfly Hunt, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London, E14 9RS) or email (britishbutterflies The winner will be announced in the newspaper. For terms and conditions please see or send an SAE. Best of British.