Burgundy? Glass half empty

It has been a cold weekend, although mine has been warmed by a rather lucky profit at Cheltenham racecourse (my winning bet came as a result of the leader falling at the last hurdle – but there is just as little point in apologising for fortuitous wins as railing against ‘unlucky’ losses) and by the lovely short-eared owl, with its piercing yellow eyes, that I saw on my way home.

Butterfly Conservation have a nature reserve on the Cotswold escarpment looking down on the racecourse and there, on warmer days after the Cheltenham Festival you might see butterflies such as the Duke of Burgundy which I have never seen in the UK, but have seen abroad.  This is one of the fastest declining butterfly species in the UK, having lost 46% of its population in the last 10 years.  I’d better put it on my list of ‘must see’ species for next year otherwise I might never see it in the UK.

The Duke of Burgundy is a fussy species – but we shouldn’t blame it for that – requiring, as it does, that its grassland habitat is not too shaded and not too heavily grazed either.  But it isn’t fussy about its food plants; primroses and cowslips are perfectly acceptable and there are plenty of both around still.  But you can see that it needs someone looking out for it on the sites that it still inhabits to make sure that grazing levels are maintained in the region that it requires.  This is the type of species that won’t be conserved by broad-brush approaches – it needs someone who understands its needs advising on its remaining sites so that the right conditions are provided for it.  A decade ago this species lived on 108 sites but now it is down to 76.

Three quarters of our butterflies are declining in numbers or range and some of them are the fussy ones  like the Duke of Burgundy.  However, let’s remember that these species haven’t been so fussy that they haven’t been able to cope with life in the UK for thousands of years.  These species survived when there was no Nature Conservancy, Nature Conservancy Council, English Nature nor Natural England.  Now there are conservation organisations, statutory agencies, governments signing up to global biodiversity targets and you would have thought that the tiny area occupied by the Duke of Burgundy (far less than 0.1% of the UK land surface) might be managed effectively with them in mind.

And if we did a good job for the DoB then, at least at Prestbury hill, we would be doing a good job for the other species that live in the same place – species like green hairstreak, marbled white, dark green fritillary, chalkhill blue and a longer list of commoner species too.  And the same site has musk orchid and bee orchid too, and I expect it has a range of other declining invertebrate species too.

But as well as tipping me off that I ought to go out and see some DoBs next spring, last week’s report by Butterfly Conservation and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology show that it’s certainly not just the species that one could wrongly blame for being fussy that are declining – common and widespread species are becoming rarer too.  Holly blue, gatekeeper and the small tortoiseshell are all declining in numbers.

Some butterfly species are doing well – but for each increasing species there are three declining ones.

Butterfly Conservation’s Chief Executive, Dr Martin Warren, says “We now have firm evidence that targeted effort can reverse the decline of threatened butterflies, so it is especially sad that these hard-fought gains have been put in jeopardy due to Government cut backs in funding. Wildlife recovery needs more not less funding if we are to halt the loss of biodiversity and create a healthy environment for us all to live in.“.

Butterfly Conservation Surveys Manager Richard Fox said: “Butterflies are the ‘canaries in the coalmine’ for our environment and this new assessment shows they are in a poor state in 21st Century Britain.

Despite grand promises by politicians, rare and common species of butterfly continue to decline in our countryside and towns as a result of farming, forestry and building practices that are hostile to our native wildlife.

However, we know what to do to reverse the long-term declines of many threatened butterflies and, over the last decade, we’ve proved it can be done on countless local sites across the UK.

What we now need to do is roll out these successful approaches on a bigger scale. It is vital that the Government’s new approach to ecosystem conservation retains a sharp focus on threatened species – without this, many butterflies and other iconic wildlife will continue to decline towards extinction.“.

The trouble is that it’s not only in December that we forget about butterflies and nature in general – it seems as though we don’t give it enough thought, and care, in the other months of the year too.

I hope I’ll be back at Cheltenham racecourse for the meeting on 1 January 2012.  But I will make a note to be looking down on the racecourse in May 2012 and I hope I’ll catch the DoBs before they are all gone.



20 Replies to “Burgundy? Glass half empty”

  1. It would be interesting to know how many of these former sites for this butterfly have released Pheasants and Red legged Partridge on them! It may just a shot in the dark but a recent site for rare plants has just had a ‘pheasant pen’ built on it with no concern for wildlife in the area. The owner of the shoot has claimed he has invested in ‘wildlife management’ so why has he damaged 2 SSSIs!!

  2. I opened your blog just after sending off some ideas on how to bring some of our 500,000+ hectares of neglected woodland in England back into management. Is it butterflies’ biggest single problem ? Quite possibly – and isn’t it strange we have farmland wildlife collapsing due to over intensification & woodlands the opposite. It’s not just the pheasant shooters, either – bodies like the Woodland Trust and National Trust are quite equivocal in both their attitude & delivery of woodland management. The answers aren’t always that difficult – RSPB in the Blean in Kent, working with Woodland Trust & Natural England, recorded a big rise in Heath Fritillary – better named the ‘Woodman’s Follower’ – and they’ll have achieved that by very intensive, extensive coppicing. Precise management is one route – bigger habitats another & at Neroche Forest south of Taunton FC have developed a completly new landscape, with huge (200m) new open links between unimproved fields, pasture woodland & traditional ctalle grazing – like the New Forest its a scale where those little niches conventional management can never reproduce can develop.

  3. Having worked on restoring degraded wildlife sites I can see there is always a dilemma when resources are limited. And, to be honest, resources have always have been limited and they always will be. The current situation is no different to that in the past. So what is the dilemma and what can we do about it?

    I believe there are two phases to the restoration of habitat. The first is to get the basics of the habitat managenent right. The second is to put the icing on the cake and make a difference to our rare and often iconic species. These two can run in parallel but if the first is not done the second will be a struggle and there is the dilemma and challenge.

    It is only relatively recently, through the work of species or group specific conservation organisations such as Butterfly Conservation and the RSPB that we have come to understand what is needed to conserve these rarer and more specialist habitat dependent species. Conservation without the detailed research needed to find out what a species requirements really are, is to some extent wasted effort. For many habitats and species the “have a go and see what happens” approach is no longer tenable. We do know what to do in many cases and “targeted tweaking” should be part of our approach for the rarer species. Maybe we should be looking to masterplanning, so beloved of landscape architects, to design a site for wildlife and implement it without delay.

    If you are faced with, say chalk grassland that has almost totally gone through scrub invasion, but with some species just hanging on, what may be needed is an initial injection of effort to halt the decline of the habitat. Sometimes that can appear brutal, such as removal of scrub, but the benefits can be quick to appear. Once the basics are being put in place then “targeted tweaking” of conditions to support those species that require more detailed work should then follow immediately. Better planning can only help that.

    Seeing the results of conservation work in a short timescale is such a boost to morale of the many volunteers who freely give their time to improve things for wildlife.

    So I guess the key thing is to do something. We won’t get it right every time. But, if we don’t try we will never know. We have been provided with the tools by quality research and that can shorten the timescales. Even if we are too late for some species at least we have made the difference for the common ones and many others of conservation importance.

    I guess this is a plea to not just focus on the rare but to accept we have come a long way in managing wildlife and we generally do know what to do. We need both decent habitat and enthusiasm for specific species to halt and reverse the decline.

    1. John – welcome and I agree. I think the danger is that we as conservationists accept that we can’t do everything – actually we could do an awful lot if we could just unlock the resources that are a small drop in the country’s economic ocean (even if it is shrinking) but would be a flood of money for nature conservation and theatened habitats and species.

  4. Too true Mark. Never giving in is important and also to promote the many conservation successes. I guess we have to be creative in how we word grant applications and things. Sometimes resources can be found from unexpected quarters. Grant aid criteria can usually be turned in some way towards the benefit of the environment. Creative thinking can help. But can lead to some very unexpected alliances. That can challenge our morals!

  5. Interesting isn’t it, that the decline in Butterfly species is part of a bigger trend of rapidly declining biodiversity in the UK. It’s the same trend with moth species, Dragonflies, Wild flowering plants etc, and we know that our native bees are suffering a similar fate and we don’t need to mention farmland birds.. Nature reserves are obviously a great way to deal with this but they won’t be enough will they? Other than maybe keeping remnant populations hanging on by a thread. Land managers and their respective organisations need to be on board with this as the largest group of ‘users’ of our countryside. And our planning system can’t be allowed to ignore the effects on special areas as a result of pressures from development. Blindingly obvious stuff. How to get more money into conservation? Developers have to enter into ‘s106’ agreements – lets have a standard percentage of these agreements dedicated to enhancing nature conservation as a matter of course – and those land managers that want to maximize productions for whatever reason, without entering into voluntary environmental improvements, should pay a percentage into the same pot, related to turnover say.

  6. Gert,

    Problem with s.106 is that it has to be directly linked to the planning application and based upon hard evidence. Something in nature conservation that is always difficult to do. But with the development of biological record centres and a good body of knowledge on local habitats that can be used in the very local context required by s.106 agreements this might be more common in the future. Requires nature conservation managers to be really plugged into the town and country planning system.

    Have a look at Community Infrastructure Levy and Green Infrastructure. Two recent and interesting developments on similar lines.

    Not light reading but hope it helps.

  7. Think the big problem is that in fact not enough people care about wildlife and the environment.We do not necessarily have to have the handouts from H M G or E U.People simply in the majority of cases prefer mobile phones to butterflies.Even though we are supposedly in hard times there seems to be plenty of money sloshing around for lots of what have become necessities.Would be interesting to do a poll on what people consider important about things in your blog today on the street in a town near you.I do of course completely agree with you but unfortunately we are in a serious minority.

    1. Dennis – but then that is true of every interest. many people aren’t interested in football, opera or literature. But we don’t say that everyone or a majority have to want the olympics to be here for it to happen. Horse racing is a minority interest. A test of a civilised Society is how it treats minority interests after all.

  8. Hi Mark

    Many thanks for highlighting our Butterfly Conservation report on the continuing drastic decline of butterflies, but as you say, there is some good news. For most species, we know why they are declining and we know what we do to reverse it, its simply we lack the resources to do that in enough places to make a difference at UK level. The cut back in our Government grant has just made it a whole lot more difficult.

    To take the Duke of Burgundy, our reserve at Prestbury Hill, overlooking your beloved Cheltenham racecourse, has bucked the trend. Thanks to careful management consisting of light grazing by cattle, combined with patchy scrub management, numbers have gone up well in the last few years.

    The problem this species faces is that it requires “unconventional” management as far as limestone grassland is concerned. Most reserve and SSSI managers would like to see all chalk and limestone grassland very well grazed to maintain floristic diversity and reduce scrub invasion. Whereas, the dear old Duke (and many other invertebrates) likes taller, lightly grazed vegetation, with patches of scrub and lots of the food-plant, cowslips. Creating this sound quite a challenge, but can be achieved on most sites. The Duke also favours moister slopes that face north and west, so it does not conflict with maintaining shorter grass that many plants and insects (including several butterflies) like on hot south facing slopes.

    For this reason, Dukes are declining faster on SSSIs and most nature reserves than on unprotected land because they do not fit with prevailing norms of management. Conservationists need to be far more flexible in their approach to land management and avoid uniformity across the landscape. This is a critical factor because many other invertebrates also need structural diversity, so the Duke just emphasises a wider issue – one size does not fit all.

  9. Could not agree more with Martin’s comments. So often wildlife management goes for the monoculture. Good example is heather dominated heath where there is hardly a patch of scrub or a tree to be seen. But where there are trees up pops a Dartford Warbler or a Stonechat. Getting the basics right is only the start and should run in parallel with management that benefits the common (less fussy) and rare (very fussy). We do generally know what to do. Lack of knowlege is not an excuse. There is a good network out there and many people who are only too pleased and willing to help.

  10. Comments about the decline of butterflies have rightly focussed on management of both woodland and and grasslands to try and provide the right conditions for species such as the Duke of Burgundy, Heath Fritillary, and other habitat specialists. Another area of concern worth mentioning is that of brown-field sites. These are very important for various butterfly species including dingy skipper, grizzled skipper and greyling as well as a variety of other scarce and declining invertebrates but there is a widespread notion that development on greenfield sites is bad and develoment on brown field sites is good. Certainly this has been the thrust of planning policy for a number of years. I agree that urban sprawl is itself undesirable and needs to be checked but the thoughtless application of the ‘develop only brown field sites’ rule can be very deleterious to invertebrates and it is vital that planners are made aware of this.

  11. From upthread “Problem with s.106 is that it has to be directly linked to the planning application and based upon hard evidence”…if there were, say, white-letter hairstreaks breeding on the site and recorded as such, could the S106 agreement be used to fund the planting of disease-resistant elms nearby? Would this apply to ‘pretty’ species not necessarily of conservation concern? (I am thinking of Marbled White here, which can be common on brownfield sites).

    Mark, if we get an early spring I think you have the possibility of taking in the butterflies on Prestbury Hill during the day and the hunter chase meeting on the racecourse in the evening – something I have occasionally wondered about trying.

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