Join the Great British Butterfly Hunt

As several British butterflies flutter towards extinction, The Independent invites you on a safari and national health check.
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As the coming Easter break offers a chance for everyone to get out into the countryside for the first time this spring, The Independent launches an innovative wildlife project: the Great British Butterfly Hunt.

With millions of people worried about their jobs, we offer some relief from the gloom by helping readers to find, watch and delight in some of the countryside’s loveliest creatures: the 58 species of butterfly that grace Britain’s heathlands and hedgerows, fields and forests – and indeed, when we are lucky, our own gardens.

To many people the most beautiful of all insects, butterflies have long captured the human imagination. The Victorians collected them avidly. The 20th-century novelist Vladimir Nabokov, a passionate enthusiast, said that “literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man”. To Wordsworth, butterflies were a cherished childhood memory. And even in our own time, children still find them endlessly fascinating, in both their complex life cycle from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult insect, and in their short adult lives when they briefly add their brilliant flashes of airborne colour to the world.

Britain is blessed with some of the most attractive, from the scarlet-and-black red admiral, which everybody knows, to the majestic purple emperor and the spectacular swallowtail, which are much more localised and require a special trip to be observed.

In a project lasting from now until the end of August, we are turning that limited number of British species to our advantage: we are going to try to see all of them.

In the Great British Butterfly Hunt we will seek to find and report on each one of our 58 varieties (56 residents and two Continental migrants) – from the Glanville fritillary, found only on the Isle of Wight, to the chequered skipper, now occurring just in the Scottish Highlands. In a mixture of safari, national health check and conservation campaign, we will report from the Norfolk Broads on the state of the swallowtail, from the oak woods of Hampshire on the purple emperor, and from the hills of Somerset on the large blue, a lovely insect that became extinct in Britain in 1979 but has now been reintroduced, and – in a conservation miracle – is breeding again. We will report from right across the country on every single species.

But most importantly we are inviting you, the readers, to join us, and to see how many you can observe for yourselves. As the different species emerge at different moments of the spring and summer, we will be offering extensive guidance on identification and on how to find them. Some may well be in your back garden or local park. Others, especially the rarities, may involve a journey – albeit to the most beautiful parts of Britain.

To give an edge to it all, we are introducing an element of competition, and an unusual prize.

The person or group (such as a school class) which records the most species will win a special safari in late August, conducted by The Independent in conjunction with the charity Butterfly Conservation, to find the last butterfly of the summer – the most elusive of all the British species: the brown hairstreak.

As a spectacular start, on Thursday we will give away free a full-colour wallchart of all of Britain’s butterflies with every copy of The Independent. If you’re going to the countryside over the holiday weekend, take the chart with you – 13 of Britain’s species have already emerged and can be seen.

But we are not launching the Great British Butterfly Hunt solely for public enjoyment, although that is a key reason. We want to raise awareness, for British butterflies are in crisis, with numbers falling to their lowest point ever in one of the worst wildlife declines Britain has seen.

Two successive washout summers have sent populations plunging: at least a dozen species are at their lowest level ever recorded, many more are in serious trouble, and numerous local butterfly colonies are on the brink of dying out. Three species in particular, the wood white, the Duke of Burgundy and the high brown fritillary, are now seen as being in real danger of national extinction.

About 70 per cent of all our species have been steadily declining for years, but the unusually wet summer of 2007 – the wettest on record – followed by 2008, another washout and “the summer of no butterflies”, accelerated these declines sharply. Heavy rain makes it difficult for butterflies to survive – they are unable to fly in the rain which means they cannot reach the nectar they feed on. Rain also reduces breeding success by washing eggs and caterpillars off food plants.

New statistics from the Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, released today, confirm fears that 2008 was a truly terrible year for the insects, with at least 12 species recording their lowest-ever numbers. They were: dingy skipper, large skipper, Lulworth skipper, small skipper, green hairstreak, white-letter hairstreak, high brown fritillary, pearl-bordered fritillary, small heath, wood white, small tortoiseshell and orange tip. Three other species – grayling, grizzled skipper and wall – had their second worst-ever year.

This list includes several once-familiar garden visitors whose numbers have dropped in recent years, including the orange tip, a spring butterfly, and the small tortoiseshell, which has declined drastically over the past decade. There is also great concern over several formerly common butterflies including the small heath, small copper and wall, which are dramatically declining.

Some butterflies are at risk of going extinct nationally. Top of the list is the high brown fritillary, with fewer than 50 colonies in the entire country, many of them small. “The recent bad weather pushed an alarming number of these to the brink of extinction,” said Dr Tom Brereton, head of monitoring at Butterfly Conservation. The Duke of Burgundy butterfly and the wood white are seriously endangered, with fewer than 100 colonies each.

Apart from the weather, the main factors causing the long-term decline of so many species are the loss of |crucial habitats such as flower-rich grassland, and the intensification of farming methods. A lack of management is also causing problems in woodland habitats. Butterfly Conservation is working with landowners and other conservation groups to try to reverse these declines.

Today we begin our reports with the four species you are likely to see first in any spring: the red admiral, the peacock, the small tortoiseshell and the comma, which spend the |winter hiding as fully-grown adults and emerge at the first sign of the sun’s warmth. Tomorrow we report on two more spring butterflies, the orange tip and the brimstone, and we will give away our wallchart of all 58.