UK butterflies ravaged by climate change

A A A

It has taken 10,000 volunteers, 1.6 million recorded sightings and five years of painstaking research, but the biggest census ever of British butterflies has finally been completed.

It has taken 10,000 volunteers, 1.6 million recorded sightings and five years of painstaking research, but the biggest census ever of British butterflies has finally been completed.

And the results make dismal reading for the prospects of the Northern Brown Argus, or the Pearl-bordered Fritillary Fans.

The Comma, once in decline, can take heart, although its rapid reappearance is almost certainly due to global warming. But the Large Tortoiseshell is now officially extinct.

Researchers for the charity Butterfly Conservation split the country into 10km squares and used an army of enthusiastic lepidopterists to scour an estimated 97 per cent of them. The result is a detailed map of the 60 species of butterfly that inhabit the British Isles.

The butterfly census is the first for 20 years and easily the most comprehensive. The 1979 survey contained a mere 150,000 recorded sightings and took 13 years.

Sadly, the Millennium Atlas of Butterflies, published next year by Oxford University Press, will paint a bleak picture for certain rarer butterflies. An expert says we are sitting on a "biodiversity time bomb" and lists 10 species on the endangered list and facing extinction.

"Something killed off the Large Tortoiseshell," said Richard Fox, Butterfly Conservation's project co-ordinator, "It's really a bit of a mystery. There has been a question mark over the existence of the Large Tortoiseshell in the UK for some time but this survey confirms it no longer exists in this country."

The Large Copper, which for decades struggled to survive the ravages of large-scale farming in the East Anglian fenlands, its natural habitat, is also thought extinct.

Others are in severe danger. The Northern Brown Argus, once thought to be widespread, is confined to a few sites in eastern Scotland. It has disappeared from north Wales and northern England where only a hybrid of the Northern Brown Argus, genetically mixed with the common Brown Argus, exists.

The High Brown Fritillary is another confined to a handful of colonies on Exmoor and Dartmoor and in Morecambe Bay in the north-west. Its decline has been one of the most sudden and severe of all British butterflies.

Destruction of habitat - deliberately or through neglect - is the main cause of declining numbers. But global warming is also playing its part.

Climate change has severely reduced some species and encouraged others to thrive and spread north from natural habitats in the south of England. Mr Fox said: "Butterflies are very closely dependent on the weather."

The Comma is enjoying a rejuvenation. Its range has increased by more than 60 per cent in the past two decades and it looks like returning to Scotland after an absence of more than a century.

"The problem is the ones that are doing well are common already," said Mr Fox.

"On the other hand you have all these species doing very badly - and they are the ones that are much scarcer and restricted because of their habitat requirements. They tend to be confined to nature reserves.

"Ecological theory predicts such populations will become extinct, particularly if neighbouring patches are destroyed or become unsuitable. We are now sitting on a biodiversity time bomb."

To coincide with next year's publication of the census, Butterfly Conservation is pressing for the insects to be adopted by the Government as an official wildlife indicator and measure of the state of health of the environment.

The group is in talks with English Nature, the Government's environmental advisory body, to make butterflies an official barometer.

"The butterfly gives you a good idea of subtle changes in the environment," said Mr Fox.

Butterfly Conservation can be contacted at PO Box 222, Dedham, Colchester, CO7 6EY (tel: 01206 322342).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Trade Advisers - Yorkshire and Humber

£29500 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company in Yorkshire and t...

Recruitment Genius: Project and Resource Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing experience-led technology co...

Recruitment Genius: Production Scientist

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises in the...

Recruitment Genius: Factory Manager - Food

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable