The future of butterflies in the United Kingdom is not looking great. A recent report has found that more than three-quarters of the nation’s butterflies have declined in the last 40 years, with many once-common species now on a downward trend. This worrying assessment reveals that while many, in fact most, species are at risk, this doesn’t have to be the case: Those that were once most endangered are actually now beginning to increase in number, thanks to conservation measures.
The report, titled "The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2015," is released annually by Butterfly Conservation and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. Using butterfly abundance data collected over the years by volunteers and citizen scientists – such as numbers of individuals or where they were found – the researchers were able to build up a country-wide picture of how butterflies are faring.
“This report reveals that U.K. butterflies are in real trouble,” says Chris Packham, Butterfly Conservation vice-president, in a statement. “Yet again we are presented with sobering evidence that our much-cherished wildlife is in dire straits. As a society we are guilty of standing idly by as once common species, never mind the rarities, suffer staggering declines. This is a situation that should shame us all.”
Acting a little like canaries in a mine, if the butterflies are in such serious decline, it’s fair to say that many other species of insects – from beetles to bees – are also probably being impacted. The report puts the main threat down to land use changes and habitat destruction, mainly from the intensification of agriculture and changing of woodland management. But even this isn’t enough to explain the widespread decline of once-common countryside butterflies such as the gatekeeper and the wall, two species that used to be easily found on farmland across the country.
And yet the data clearly shows that conservation efforts can and do work. The abundance of the U.K.’s most endangered butterfly, the high brown fritillary, has actually increased by 180 percent from last year alone. While during the last 10 years, numbers for the threatened Duke of Burgundy have risen by 67 percent and the pearl-bordered fritillary have increased by 45 percent. These increases have been put down to management practices established specifically to increase their habitat.
The report, however, cautions that this still leaves other butterflies vulnerable. One trend that has emerged in the research is how the insects living in Scotland are, in general, doing much better than in England. It’s unknown what might be causing this discrepancy, but hopefully with more research scientists will be able to tease apart these differences, along with what might be causing the larger declines seen country-wide.