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.