50 years of butterflies

To celebrate 50 years of observing butterflies, Matthew Oates reveals the winners and losers of the butterfly world from the past half-century and predicts what the future holds for these beautiful insects.

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Female large blue.

To celebrate 50 years of observing butterflies, Matthew Oates reveals the winners and losers of the butterfly world from the past half-century and predicts what the future holds for these beautiful insects.

BUTTERFLY WINNERS

  • The large blue was reintroduced to the UK from Sweden after being declared extinct here in 1979.

 

  • Adonis blue and silver-spotted skipper numbers declined severely when closely-cropped chalk grassland disappeared following the loss of rabbits to myxomatosis. However, they are now recovering due to conservation work and the revival of rabbit populations. The Adonis blue returned to the Cotswolds in 2006 after 40 years of extinction in the region. 

 

  • The Essex skipper population increased expanded in central southern England during the early 1980s due to a run of good summers and favourable weather. 

 

  • Brown argus, gatekeeper, marbled white and more recently silver-washed fritillary populations have increased. The species are expanding their range across the UK and there are signs that the purple emperor is too.

 

  • The comma has made a comeback in the UK, with a stronghold in Northern Ireland. 

© David Dennis/Butterfly Conservation

Purple emperor © David Dennis/Butterfly Conservation

BUTTERFLY LOSERS

  • The white-letter hairstreak, which breeds on elms, suffered a population collapse due to Dutch elm disease in the 1970s. Since then, it has had a low-key comeback in many areas, but remains a shadow of its former self.

 

  • The wall brown used to be common along road verges, woodland rides and rough grassland. However, it started to mysteriously disappear in the mid-1980s and is now rarely seen away from the coastal fringes of England and Wales.

 

  • The small heath, one of the UK’s most common butterflies, has virtually disappeared from woodland, although it still occurs in open grassland.

 

  • The Duke of Burgundy and high brown fritillary are struggling as few of the colonies found in 1980s and 1990s surveys remain. 

 

  • The pearl-bordered fritillary, small pearl-bordered fritillary and Duke of Burgundy were all once found in woodland clearings across central southern England, but are now very rare there.

© Peter Eeles/Butterfly Conservation

Duke of Burgundy © Peter Eeles/Butterfly Conservation

PREDICTIONS 

  • The large tortoiseshell, extinct for many years, could recolonise southern England from mainland Europe. There are early signs this may be happening already, with several sightings on the Isle of Wight this spring.

 

  • Milder winters, associated with the less adverse side of climate change, might allow the continental swallowtail, European map and the Queen of Spain fritillary to colonise from across the English Channel.

 

  • Urban spread, farming and to some extent forestry are factors influencing butterfly populations. For example, the 20th century conifer revolution saw native trees being replaced with conifers, which don’t make a good habitat for butterflies as they prevent the growth of species favoured by butterflies. Modern farming techniques have created a lack of butterfly-friendly weedy corners – fields are over sanitised and verges are cut back.

 

Read Richard Fox's top ten tips on how to spot a butterfly.

Enter our giveaway for a chance to win a presentation pack of mint butterfly stamps.

Share your best butterfly photographs in our August online photo contest. 

Matthew Oates ia a naturalist for the National Trust and is one of the UK’s leading butterfly experts. 

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