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'We must act now' says charity after worrying drop in butterfly numbers

By David G Scott

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A wildlife charity warns that "we must act now" if we are to save Scotland’s butterflies and moths for future generations after worrying statistics are revealed today.

Butterfly Conservation has today released data on the number of butterflies and day-flying moths counted across the UK in this year’s Big Butterfly Count (BBC), which ran from July 16 – August 8.

Worryingly, the decline in the number of butterflies and moths across the UK is continuing, with the overall number of butterflies recorded per count at its lowest level since the count began 12 years ago.

Red Admiral butterfly in Wick. Picture: DGS
Red Admiral butterfly in Wick. Picture: DGS

The nation’s love of butterflies isn’t diminishing. Despite the low butterfly numbers, and relatively poor weather, more butterfly counts were submitted in Scotland than ever before – 5420 butterfly counts were submitted by 4005 people, an increase of 35 per cent and 14 per cent respectively on 2020 figures.

Dr Zoë Randle, senior surveys officer at Butterfly Conservation said: “This year’s results show that the average number of butterflies and moths per count is the lowest we’ve recorded so far, and the average number in Scotland was down by 7 per cent on 2020 figures. More counts are undertaken and submitted year on year, but it seems that there are fewer butterflies and moths around to be counted.”

Stats table for the Big Butterfly Count 2021.
Stats table for the Big Butterfly Count 2021.

Some of the UK’s most-loved species including the Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock butterflies dropped in numbers this summer. This was a situation repeated across the UK, with the iconic Peacock butterfly suffering its lowest numbers since 2012. The Small Tortoiseshell, once a frequent visitor to gardens in the UK, had its third worst summer in the history of the BBC and shows a significant long-term decline in Britain.

Some species did show an increase on 2020 figures, including the Ringlet, which appeared to bounce back from low numbers during last year’s BBC. However, scientists at Butterfly Conservation warn that last year’s unusually sunny spring allowed them to emerge earlier, and that 2021’s results are therefore more typical for these species.

The greatest single species increase seen in Scotland was that for the Holly Blue, which is at complete odds with the general pattern in the UK, where the number of Holly Blue butterflies counted dropped. The Holly Blue has recently colonised Scotland and is a species to watch in future years to see if it expands across the country.

Red Admiral butterfly in Wick. Picture: DGS
Red Admiral butterfly in Wick. Picture: DGS

The Scotch Argus was included in the target species list for the BBC this year, and a total of 2305 were seen, with 50 per cent of these in the Highlands.

The weather across the UK this year has had a significant impact on butterfly and moth species, and with more climate change related extreme weather events likely, the impact on some of the UK’s most loved insects could be devastating.

Dr Randle explains: “Some of the UK’s butterflies have more than one generation per year, meaning we would see adult butterflies in spring and summer. The majority of these double-brooded species experienced their worst year since the start of the Big Butterfly Count in 2010.

"Weather changes are likely to be the cause of this. March 2021 was warmer than average which would have stimulated butterfly activity. However, May was very wet which will have hampered butterfly feeding and breeding. These combined weather effects are likely to have reduced the spring generation which has knock-on effects for the second generation in the summer.”

Butterflies and moths are important indicators of the health of the environment, and a decline in abundance is a serious cause for concern.

Scotch Argus Picture: Gilles San Martin
Scotch Argus Picture: Gilles San Martin

Butterfly Conservation has launched an ambitious strategy to help address the problems for butterflies and moths and be part of nature’s recovery.

Julie Williams, CEO of Butterfly Conservation, says: “The facts are clear. Nature is in crisis and we need urgent action, not just to prevent further species losses but to rebuild biodiversity.

“Since 1976, 76 per cent of butterflies have declined in abundance or distribution, and the downward trend continues. We have come to accept that encounters with butterflies, moths and other wildlife are unusual, delightful but infrequent.

"It doesn’t have to be this way and through our new strategy Butterfly Conservation is pledging to halve the number of threatened butterfly and moth species in the UK, double our impact on landscape restoration, and galvanise thousands of people to create new wild spaces for nature.

“We can’t do this alone though and are urging people to join us to create a world where butterflies and moths thrive and can be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.”

To find out more visit www.butterfly-conservation.org

Related articles:

Caithness Biodiversity Group helps conserve rare small blue butterfly as part of 'small is beautiful project'

Urgent appeal for public’s help to count butterflies in Caithness

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