Britain's largest and most important landowner for butterflies, the National Trust (NT), today throws its weight firmly behind The Independent's Great British Butterfly Hunt – a competition and health survey for readers to see as many species as possible this summer.
The Trust believes its massive 600,000-acre estate, containing every habitat from coastal cliffs to mountain tops, from oakwoods to chalk downlands, and from hay meadows to ancient gardens, is home to virtually all of Britain's 58 butterfly species.
"Butterflies are vital symbols of spring and summer, associated with special places and sunshine at magical times of the year," says Fiona Reynolds, the NT's director-general. "This important and welcome initiative by The Independent gives us all the chance to capture the spirit of butterflies and record sightings. I hope the Great British Butterfly Hunt will lead to a butterfly awareness revolution, with people taking a closer look at the fascinating world of butterflies, and enjoying their grace and beauty, from the exquisite Adonis blue to the majestic purple emperor. We need initiatives like this, and for people to support organisations like Butterfly Conservation and the Trust. Otherwise we're in danger of taking nature for granted and losing so much without even noticing."
The Trust is Britain's largest non-governmental landowner. Matthew Oates, the NT's butterfly expert, believes all but one of Britain's 58 species – the chequered skipper, found only in Scotland, where the Trust does not operate – live on Trust land. To find butterfly excursions, try www.nationaltrust.org.uk, and search for "butterfly walk".
The fourth of our status reports concerns the final three of the early season butterflies: the holly blue, the speckled wood and the small copper. The first two species are doing very well but the third is in decline, probably because of loss of its caterpillars' food plants. Readers can find the individual species profiles by our Environment Editor Michael McCarthy on our website butterfly page.
10. Holly blue
This is the blue butterfly you are most likely to see in your garden, where – as if it were a Christmas insect – it feeds on the holly and the ivy; the caterpillars of the spring generation feeding on holly flower heads and those of the autumn generation feeding on ivy flowers. Males can be distinguished from the somewhat similar species the common blue by their sky-blue undersides (the undersides of common blues are pale brown with black spots). If you plant holly and ivy in your garden, your chances of attracting holly blues are very good.
Larval food plants: Holly (spring generation), ivy (autumn). Occasionally on spindle, dogwood and snowberry.
Where seen: Widespread in urban and rural areas, including parks and gardens. Expanded in recent years as far as northern England but is still rare in Scotland.
Current conservation status: Numbers fluctuate massively from year to year in response to variable levels of a parasitic wasp, but in general it is doing very well: a 191 per cent increase 1976–2008.
11. Speckled wood
Chocolate-brown with creamy wing patches, the increasingly-familiar speckled wood is well named, for it is typically a butterfly of dappled woodland shade. Males like to sit in sunny patches and will spiral upwards to fight off other intruding males. Very mobile, breeding throughout the season, with its caterpillar food plants widespread.
Larval food plants: Various grasses, about a dozen species, all common, such as couch grass and cocksfoot.
Where seen: Woodland on the northern and eastern edges of its range, but elsewhere it is becoming increasingly widespread. Spreading steadily northwards.
Current conservation status: 116 per cent increase 1976-2008, probably because of climate change.
12. Small copper
This tiny, spectacularly pretty butterfly, its bright orange forewings flecked with brown spots, is declining steadily, very probably because of habitat loss. Its caterpillars feed on sorrels, small plants which are disappearing rapidly as pastureland and other habitats become "improved" and heavily fertilised grasses crowd out everything else. Three to four generations a year, so can be seen until October.
Larval food plants: Common sorrel, sheep's sorrel.
Where seen: Chalk grassland, moorland, heathland, coastal dunes, undercliffs, railway embankments, allotments, churchyards, waste ground, even cities.
Current conservation status: Much less common than it was 50 years ago, with a 25 per cent decline since 1976.
Joining the Butterfly Hunt
The Independent's Great British Butterfly Hunt gathers pace. Whether as an afternoon diversion from a picnic, or a summer-long quest to track all 58 of Britain's butterfly species, we hope it can offer a glimpse of the beauty and fragility of our rich natural heritage.
For those of our readers inclined, 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 the British butterflies to emerge (at the end of August) – medium-sized and brown, it has 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 will be 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 best will be published in The Independent.
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 (email@example.com). The winner will be announced in the newspaper. For terms and conditions visit independent.co.uk/comprules or send an SAE. Best of British.