Shifting butterfly baselines

, via Wikimedia Commons”]It’s the Easter weekend and it’s cold and a bit wet – not ideal weather for butterflies.  So far, in east Northants this year, I’ve seen commas, peacocks, speckled woods, brimstones and orange tips.  It’s a start.

Through the year I will hope to see white admirals, black hairstreaks, purple emperors, white admirals, purple hairstreaks and many more species in my regular haunts and If I see those species and many of the commoner ones then I’ll feel pretty happy about it because it will have been a pretty good year for my local butterfly spotting.

But I am in no way a butterfly expert and I dabble rather than immerse myself in the world of butterflies.  My expectations are shaped by my recent experience of butterflies in my local area, just as we all get used to what we know.

Scientists have a name for this – shifting baselines.  The thing is that we all have a personal and limited window through which we look at wildlife populations – our own lives and our own localities.  When wildlife populations are changing then we see out little bits of those changes.  This applies to species which are increasing or decreasing but a book I was given as a birthday p[resent made me realise what I was missing because my baseline had shifted from that of earlier Northants naturalists.

Martin Izzard’s excellent book, The History of Butterfly Recording in Northamptonshire 1820-2011, is an account of which species were where back before even the Victorian past.

Over the last 30 years there have been 35-37 butterfly species seen each year in Northants which compares with 52-53 species in 1902.  In a century a third of the species have been lost from this county.

Gone are the days when large blues, black-veined whites and Mazarine blues flew the Northants air.  It was fascinating to see the names of familiar villages associated with the names of unfamiliar butterflies.  Silver-studded blues and graylings were familiar locally to the Oundle School Natural History Society in 1937. Sywell had its Mazarine blues and Barnwell Wold had its large blues, silver-spotted skippers and black-veined whites.  What places these must have been back then – and how I would enjoy their nature now if it were still there!

And it’s not just that there was a longer species list, alongside that it is clear that some of these lost species were common or even abundant.  There is precious little trace of their existence now – our baselines have shifted.  In fact, lifting a glass to the lost butterflies of Northamptonshire should be an annual event in the Chequered Skipper pub and restaurant which is located near to where this butterfly was present in the county up until 1971.

But even though the weather is dull today and the butterflies are sparser than in the distant past there is much to which to look forward over the summer months.  And the perspective given by Martin Izzard’s book will make those expected summer sightings all the more prized.

To buy this book see details here.  Well done to Waitrose for sponsorship.  Butterfly Conservation works to protect our butterflies and moths.



20 Replies to “Shifting butterfly baselines”

  1. And as a wee Northants lad (growing up in Corby and then on the other side of the Welland in Ketton, Rutland), Geddington Ford was my place for catching tiddlers – minnows and sticklebacks of course but loads of bullheads and white clawed crayfish. Red data book species both today – shifting baselines indeed.

    But its not just the diversity that we’re losing, its the sheer quantity of wildlife. One of my (admittedly rather stranger) hobbies as a kid was collecting bird wings from road-kill birds. As an 8 year old I’d cycle from Corby to Great Oakley (which back then was still a village and not a suburb) and pick up dead birds. Sadly, today, I wouldn’t let my 8 year old onto the roads of Corby nor I suspect would there be much roadkill that lasted for attentions of an inquisitive 8-year old.

    Sad, but far from too late to reverse these declines.

  2. I’ll risk being boring and bring your attention once again to Simon Barnes! This Saturday he is highlighting how ‘we’ have saved the special but not the ordinary. He praises the conservationists for saving the special “there’s a lot of great things going on – so long as you know where to look” but “we are losing – we are haemorrhaging – the ordinary, the nice, the normal.” “Its not just nature reserves that need looking after, it’s everything that exists all around it.”
    I am old enough to remember the richness of the ordinary – but only just. I am now acutely aware of the missing wildlife – indeed often irritated that if I want to take a walk surrounded by the natural world I am increasingly forced to seek out nature reserves. 24 years ago I wrote a nature article warning of the foolishness of believing that so long as we had nature reserves our wildlife would be fine. I was witnessing the loss of breeding Lapwing and was already aware that Curlews would follow in the uplands of Mid Wales, I was seeing relatively common birds such as Robins and Blackbirds declining. No one else seemed to be recording these losses – so few people were taking notice of what was happening in the ordinary countryside.
    You reminded me of all of this. People are relatively content with the wildlife that they find, until you find out what was there 25, 50 or 100 years ago. What we don’t see we don’t miss – so many of the people involved in conservation today and those who are just becoming interested have no idea what has been lost – they set the baselines far too low. To quote SB again “there are only 10% of the skylarks that there were 30 years ago, only half the number of Song Thrushes and most people go through spring without hearing a cuckoo”.

    1. Stella – thank you, and there is no risk of you being boring. Yes SB is quite right (although not with his skylark figure,I think)). And that’s why I tend to talk about farmland birds a lot here – whatever the NFU think! It is the loss of the formerly ordinary – which would not now be ordinary – which is upsetting and instructive. Conservation is not just about the rare but it is about the declining common species too. Come back tomorrow for a blog about cuckoos – by coincidence.

  3. Think Stella makes a lot of very good points but ironically I would question the point about less Blackbirds and Robins as round here we have so many Blackbirds that I wonder if it is part of the reason for decline in Thrushes as they are so aggressive to any Thrush on their patch and my guess is that a Thrush eats a proportion of the same diet as Blackbirds.

    1. Dennis – yes indeed. Robins seem to be doing OK but blackbirds have got commoner in relation to song thrushes over quite a period of time.

      1. I would suggest though that the blackbird isn’t out competing and displacing other thrush species, just filling the hole they have left. Otherwise blackbirds would have out-competed song thrushes to extinction long ago rather than a sudden decline in the last 20-30 years.

        1. Adam – yes quite right unless something else is changing which tips the balalnce – such as cliamte change, air pollution change or some other impact of human existence?

  4. I think baselines are a good debate topic to bring up with conservation minded people. ‘Why try to get back to population numbers from 1970? Why not 1900? Why not last year?’ And the only real answer is ‘Because that’s when we started to really write everything down.’ Which is a half decent reason, and it is a good way to track declines, but not sure if it’s the best way to set our targets.

    But as for setting baselines to track declines, I would say that it’s a shame we didn’t write everything down from 1900 onwards, as that way the declines would look even worse and we could argue a stronger case for conservation efforts. However, if declines of 70%+ and local extinctions aren’t already good enough arguments, I don’t know what is.

    1. Adam – indeed. And I think it is worth keeping in mind how we look at other aspects of progress. We don’t seem to think that our current level of education, life expectancy or material wealth whould be pinned to their levels in 1900, 1970 or even 2012 – we act as though we must have more aand more, whereas we seem to accept that we should have less and less wildlife around us.

  5. why stop at 1900? why not 1066…or points in between – or even earlier? It would be fascinating to understand where the ‘high point’ of biodiversity abundance and species richness was through changing land use and human pressure. But while it would give us measures of change, how would it help us judge where we were going, and at what cost (in a number of different senses), in the march of society’s ‘progress’ towards increased ‘well-being’ (in a number of different senses).

    1. Roger – thanks for this. It’s a perennial discussion point. In general – the data get a bit grottier the farther back you go (and the nature gets more wonderful!). I can’t see why my children should have less nature than I did – so 30 years isn’t a bad starting point IMHO. But it’s only a starting point.

      1. I can appreciate that Mark, but I still wonder a bit whether we become myopic by foicussing too much on the human timescales we most easily relate to….vide the red deer/native woodland debates that never seem to move forward as exemplified by Rob Edwards in the Herald on Sunday

  6. Dennis – my observation on a decline of Robins and Blackbirds refers specifically to Mid Wales, where I lived and birded for 28 years. I spent many years contributing to the nest records scheme [BTO], concentrating on hedgerows and sessile oak woodland. Over a 15 year period Robin and Blackbirds nests halved in the hedgerows and steeply banked lanes [both ideal for them]. As the hamlet expanded more occurred in gardens, but this isn’t the point.
    Re baselines, I recommend reading Birds, Scythes and Combines by Michael Shrubb [published by Cambridge University Press]. What interested me so much was that as the farming methods changed radically the species and the numbers/balance of those birds utilising the farmed land also changed – but critically where one species may have declined another instantly took its place in the ‘new’ habitat. I do not recall there being one period where there was a crisis of numbers. Whilst we can’t turn the clock back, Mike identifies one type of farming ‘high farming’ which seemed to support a rich and diverse countryside. Farmers, conservationists and policy makers might learn much from studying and understanding high farming and cherry picking into the more modern systems.

  7. This thread brought back a lot of memories for me, as I remember my early childhood in Oundle. The Chequered Skipper pub in Ashton had (maybe it still does?) a pub sign made from hundreds of coloured nails hammered into a board that formed the image of a skipper when you stood back.

    Like Rob Stoneman, I was also busy collecting birds’s wings across the border in Rutland. The pride and joy of my collection was a pair of barn owl wings. My parents tolerated this until I capped my collection with a grey heron that stank out my bedroom.

    Anyway, to the thrust of the article, I think shifting baselines, and the very similar ‘creeping normalcy’ represents a very serious challenge to nature conservation. You can occasionally come across this with some people, who regard the current impoverished state of the countryside as ‘normal’ and therefore if you have a patch of land that is rich in wildlife, it must be because something has gone wrong in some way to create it.

    I think the idea of a baseline, which implicitly harks back to a previous golden age, is a mistake. As Roger says, when do you pick? Instead, we should be deciding what we want from our countryside now, and manage for that. This is relatively easy on a site by site level (“I want ‘x’ hectares of species-rich grassland, and I want it to be of ‘y’ quality”), but horrendously complicated at a national level. And of course, different groups will want different things from the same land.

    Whilst we’re at it (don’t get me started!!!) there are two other fallacies that drive me crazy. One is post hoc reasoning (“I see fewer tree sparrows and more obese people, therefore the obese people have eaten all the sparrows”). The other is preferring anecdotes over scientific data (“I see lots of tree sparrows in my area, therefore you will never convince me the species is declining”).

    Stella’s right – Mike Shrubb is well worth a read.

    1. Andrew – great comment, thank you. And yes, the pub sign is still there – or it was the last time I looked – I may need another pint.

  8. “I see fewer tree sparrows and more obese people, therefore the obese people have eaten all the sparrows”

    Perfectly sound – Darwin called it “survival of the fattest”

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