Butterflies on the Edge

Something a bit different.  Comments from Mike over at https://alittlebitoutoffocus.com/?wref=bif on my last post made me realise that many readers may not understand that in the UK several species of butterfly are or were in great danger of becoming extinct.  I thought in this post I would try and explain why but not in minute detail.  I am not an ecologist so these are views purely of a layman, though many years ago I was heavily involved in angling conservation and river habitat restoration.

Why are butterflies in danger?  Each species has it’s own special requirements but it’s all down to habitat.  The UK is a (relatively) small but heavily populated island(s) so there is great pressure on land use.  More people want more houses, places to work, better transport.  Farmers are being asked to produce more food to feed the growing nation.  Nature has very often taken second place to these needs.  Britain has been shaped by man’s activities for millennia and because of this many butterflies have adapted to the man-made environment.  Now as our needs change many of the old practices are stopped and the butterflies are struggling with the effects.

Pearl Bordered Fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) Bentley Wood, Hampshire 2018

Into the Woods.  It was said that thousands of years ago the British Isles were covered in woodland.  People have always exploited this natural resource and over time the ‘wildwood’ disappeared and in it’s place came commercial forest.  Certain trees were grown for various purposes, for instance Oaks for naval shipbuilding.  In the 1920’s huge areas were planted with quick growing non-native conifers with little benefit to wildlife.  One ancient practice was that of coppicing.  This is where sections of wood are cut down to generate new growth and was done on a rotational basis.  In these coppices some species of butterfly thrived as their caterpillar food plant grew in the newly opened areas.  These included the Heath, Pearl-bordered, Small Pearl-bordered and High Brown Fritillaries.  When the coppicing no longer became commercially viable the woods grew back, blocking light and the under-storey choking out those plants the butterflies needed, the Violets and Common Cow-wheat.  Populations crashed to the brink of extinction.  The High Brown Fritillary can now only be found on a few limestone hills around Morecambe Bay in Cumbria and some valleys on Exmoor.

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High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe), Latterbarrow Cumbria 2018

Green, green grass.  It is not just woodland that has suffered change.  Many areas of open grasslands are no longer grazed in the traditional way as this became unprofitable.  The effects were the same.  Plants that require certain conditions could not flourish and those species that rely on them collapsed.  The situation was made worse when the rabbit population, that helped keep the coarse grasses short, suffered the deadly disease myxomatosis which was introduced by man.  One species hit hard was the beautiful Adonis Blue of the warm southern chalk downs.

Adonis Blue (Polyommatus bellargus) Yoesden Bank, Buckinghamshire 2017

Queen of the Broads.  In my home County of Norfolk we have a butterfly that is just hanging on.  The Swallowtail is unlike it’s close Continental cousin in that it is totally reliant on Milk Parsley, a plant that grows in the reedbeds of the wetlands of the Broads.  If these reedbeds are not maintained this plant and the Swallowtail will die out.  It has lost the ability to wander far in search of a new home.

Swallowtail (Papilo machon ssp britannicus), Hickling, Norfolk 2018

What is the future?  These are just a few examples to show how butterflies have adapted to the way we managed the countryside.  It is that sudden change of use that has put them in peril.  We have moved quickly in land management but they have not had time to evolve.  Add in the consequences of global warming and things look dire.  It is not all doom and gloom.  More people are acutely aware of the problems and are acting quickly to address the situation.  Conservation groups are working on habitat restoration under the guidance of the scientists.  There have been massive success stories like that of the Large Blue (Phengaris arion). This has been reintroduced to it’s former areas after becoming extinct in 1978 when it was discovered what it needed to survive.  For people like myself who delight in seeing such wildlife we owe a debt of gratitude to these conservationists and must support them however possible.

Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina), Totternhoe, Bedfordshire 2018. Hanging on but hopefully with conservation work will still be around for future generations to admire



36 thoughts on “Butterflies on the Edge

  1. Hello Brian,
    Thank you for sharing some insight into the plight of the butterflies in the UK. It is a somber read, but so important to be aware. I think Japan faces similar circumstances, especially how as an island nation there are physical and other limitations, along with the added pressures that came with modernization and industrialization. Many of our unique wildlife species face an uncertain future too.

    Thank you again, for sharing, and of course your beautiful photographs too. I hope you and your loved ones continue to stay safe.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Takami, yes we are all good over here.
      Yes I can see how Japan shares the same future problems as us. I hope that your Country too has foresight to protect it’s natural heritage. To do nothing is not an option. Once gone it’s gone for ever.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautifully described (and thanks for the reference😊). And that probably explains why we have so many of these species over here – the land is still managed in the old-fashioned way. It’s also too hilly (certainly around the Alps) to grow any meaningful crops, so we have a naturally wild environment. The farmers even leave the fields until late June or maybe early August before cutting it for winter feed, so all the birds and butterflies, etc. can reproduce quite happily.
    You may also be interested to hear that we had a Black-headed Bunting on our balcony and in the tree outside our chalet this morning. I understand it’s a rare visitor to Central and NW Europe. (We managed to get a few very poor pictures, so, again, not really worthy of a post). And, as I type, my wife has just discovered a young Redstart outside the kitchen door after it flew into the window! It looks ok but is still getting its bearings.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Mike. It’s good to know traditional methods prevail in your area, long may it continue and the herbicides and pesticides are kept at bay!
      Great find with the Bunting. One of my memories of holidaying on the Greek island of Lesvos was that ubiquitous song of these birds. I saw a vagrant female over here a few years back but it was not as colourful as the males.
      Hope the Redstart recovers.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It was the quite loud song which alerted me to it, though it may have been amplified by our terrace. I think the only thing the farmers put on the fields is the cow muck they’ve accumulated through the winter. The Redstart flew off about 10 minutes later. So it was ok.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. The more that I have gotten into photographing insects and birds, the more I have come to realize the importance of habitats to the survival of many species. Sure, there are some species that are habitat generalists and seemingly can survive in almost any environment. However, as you poignantly point out, other species require very specific conditions and if those conditions cease to exist, the species may be at risk of extinction. Your posting was very sobering, Brian, but, as always had beautiful photos.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Mike for taking the time to read my thoughts.
      The problems facing nature are of course worldwide. In our ‘little’ Country there is hardly anywhere that could be classed as true wilderness, man has altered almost all the landscape. It is up to us to ensure what we enjoy and photograph is there for the next generations. One small butterfly may not seem that important but I believe they are. Everything has it’s place (but I would not be sad if Ticks did not exist).

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Brian, thank you for a thoughtful and important post.

    Your description echoes the plight of many species around the planet. Hope lies with the very same source of the habitat destruction: humans. Education which leads to action is the key. Teach our children, at home and in schools, exactly WHY each species is vital to our world. Then LEAD them in becoming active in groups to help protect and restore habitat.

    Your efforts are greatly appreciated.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I do hope more youngsters get to enjoy the natural world, at the moment most seem obsessed by cell phones and gaming. There does seem to be more effort put into conservation but we have a long way to go and we have to rid ourselves of this greed for more resources.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A beautifully written piece, Brian, with, as usual, some incredible photography. Amazing work. You only make me want to plant to attract them, now. We see so few species here in this part of Scotland, which I have often found a little surprising. Whether it’s climate or habitat, I’m not sure. Any ideas? Thank you for sharing your passions still. Insightful to the end.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Scotland is blessed with a good number of butterfly species, some are real specialists i.e the Chequered Skipper and Mountain Ringlet. Others that are ‘common’south of the border are absent. A lot is down to climate, the appearance of most will be 2-3 weeks later than we see them. Habitat is generally ok but if you have a patch you can plant to attract they will come. Of course nectar plants are obvious (like buddleia) but a bit of space for native plants for caterpillars to eat (nettles are good) will help enormously.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, if nettles are a plus, there shouldn’t be a problem, then, Brian! A good few buddleias in the garden too so – I think we will have to wait it out! I don’t think I’ll be grabbing anything like you deliver though – amazing work, my friend!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you, Brian, for highlighting the issues our butterflies are facing in such an informative and interestingly referenced way, with your fabulous photos illustated throughout. Hopefully we can help turn things around, not only for our butterflies, but our moths, other insects and invertebrates that have suffered habitat loss and damage over the years here and have suffered decline, and sadly extinction in some species.

    I have to echo your words:


    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s all interconnected isn’t it Pete. If one species is lost, plant, bug or whatever there is usually a knock on effect. Restoration of habitat is the start but what I failed to mention was the need to link habitats together so nature has a ‘corridor’ to move along and expand. This is being worked on I believe. There are some species of butterfly that just will not move far, if they are isolated and suffer a bad breeding season then that’s that.
      More people who understand the plight of nature, especially the young, the brighter the future could be,

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for this concise summary. I learned much. We have similar challenges over here in America. Honey Bees for example. Our planet is being stressed. What to do about it is a “tough nut to crack.”

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Clearly not the treasure trove of Butters in my local vs the beauties you are able to share with us, however, we are doing a lot of work to restore our prairies in the midwest to hopefully bring back some of the native lands and rejuvenate the wildlife that rely on it – definitely seeing an improvement in the Monarch front and last weekend Ron and I witnessed one of the largest Swallowtail populations in a long time. Still love that Adonis Blue… have I mentioned a small mailable box with holes before ha.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi B. Good to hear of the work midwest which is probably twice the size of the UK! Space is the thing, we have too many small, isolated reserves that need to be linked up so nature has a corridor to expand along. Some species of butterfly will come across a motorway or extensive mono-culture fields and just give up.


    1. You are the first to mention that about the photos Kim, yes that was the idea of putting them in.
      Some Countries are seeing the light and making conservation a priority, sadly there are others who are hell bent on destroying the planet. I’m not an eco-warrior or whatever just love wildlife and wild places.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. beautifully described! unfortunately this is the reality🥺 thank you for sharing this enlightening post with us!!🤍

    Follow @everythingtips for tips and recommendations if interested!☺️ It would mean a lot to me!🥺🤍

    Liked by 2 people

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