The Big Butterfly Count: where have they gone?

By Eve Kirman

When it comes to news regarding the environment, it often (disappointingly) comes as no surprise when headlines are mostly negative. Topics that would once evoke anxiety and unease in readers are now becoming so common that it could be argued many people are growing desensitised to the climate crisis. However, for me, some environmental updates can still hit with just as much surprise and disbelief as when I first learnt about them. One of these stories that has elicited this reaction most recently, is the somewhat dystopian notion that butterflies may be disappearing.

For the third year consecutively, Butterfly Conservation, an organisation that works to protect butterflies and moths in the UK, has recorded its lowest average abundance since counts began thirteen years ago. As a citizen science project, Butterfly Conservation’s ‘Big Butterfly Count’ relies on the public to identify and count the butterflies seen in their gardens. This year’s count took place from the 15th of July to the 7th of August with the results revealing that a figure of merely 9 butterflies were seen per Count.

Dr Richard Fox, the Head of Science for Butterfly Conservation said that scientists “expected this summer to have been a much better one for butterflies given the good whether in many parts of the UK.” However, he acknowledged that weather conditions are not the only factor contributing to the survival of butterflies. So, why are butterfly populations declining?

Somewhat dystopian notion that butterflies may be disappearing

Dr Fox claims that “the fact that more butterflies weren’t seen is concerning and it’s clear that much more needs to be done to protect and restore habitats to aid nature recovery. The sun could shine for days on end, but we still won’t see more butterflies unless there is habitat for them to thrive in.”

Zoe Randle, senior surveys officer at Butterfly Conservation, agrees with Dr Fox in that the answer lies in habitat changes – such as urbanisation. Butterflies were seen to be disappearing faster in urban areas as opposed to the countryside due to factors such as increased paving and plastic grass as well as increased nitrate levels from cars.

Due to the uncharacteristically hot weather this summer, butterflies did appear a couple of weeks earlier than they usually do. However, with this taken into consideration the result was still discouraging. The findings weren’t entirely negative, however, as some species have experienced a large population growth since the last count. Sightings of the Common Blue and the Holly Blue increased by 154% and 120% respectively, which is hopeful considering both species had their lowest counts ever recorded in 2021.

Nevertheless, these findings stress the need for change – otherwise we may be watching one of the country’s favourite garden inhabitants become extinct. Randle hopes that people can be proactive in providing butterfly-friendly habitats in their own garden. This includes allowing grass to grow longer and even promoting specific plant species in order to allow these insects “space to feed, breed and shelter”.

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