Sunday book review – The Disappearance of Butterflies by Joseph Reicholf

This book is a great read. We should be grateful that we now have the opportunity to read this book, first published in German in 2018, in English.

The author is a distinguished German entomologist. The book’s title is just slightly misleading in that it is not just about the disappearance of butterflies, for two reasons. It’s partly about moths, and other insects and plants and everything but, fair enough, it is centred on butterflies. More importantly it is not only about their decline but it is to a large extent about their biology; in fact the book is in two parts, Part 1 The biology of lepidoptera and Part 2 the disappearance of lepidoptera.

Part 1 is a real treat for someone like me who can identify butterflies quite well, likes them, is interested in them and would like to know more about them. And the good thing about Germany is that it isn’t that far away and so most of the butterflies discusssed are our butterflies too – that helps. Two of the chapters in Part 1 are Brimstones the first spring butterflies and The nettle-feeding lepidoptera; an instructive community, but we also get The fascinating life of aquatic moths (see! I said it wasn’t just butterflies).

Part 2 is also a treat and this is a hard-hitting critique of two familiar things; industrial agriculture (in The inhospitality of the countryside) and obsessive mowing of community spaces, often for no earthly reason (in The devastating effect of communal maintenance measures). The author also has a go at light pollution and a range of other factors.

The perspective of a senior German entomologist is sufficiently different from the usual fare of British ornithologists that the book feels refreshingly original. The descriptions of biology are wonderfully clear and the analysis of what’s going wrong is wonderfully trenchant. Guess what? Yes, I loved both.

The cover is slightly odd in that flocks of Monarchs are flying around in it. So the title is slightly misleading (as they often are) in a couple of ways and the cover is slightly misleading in another way but none of that matters (except I might have picked this book up to read and review a couple of weeks ago if they had been different) because the book is very good. So good, that it goes straight into my shortlist for this blog’s book of the year, which I will reveal on Sunday 16 November, after also revealing Stephen Moss’s review of wildlife and environmental books of 2020 and his book of the year on Friday 14 November.

The Disappearance of Butterflies by Joseph H. Reicholf is published by Polity Press.


3 Replies to “Sunday book review – The Disappearance of Butterflies by Joseph Reicholf”

  1. Sounds like a brilliant book. Excellent that alongside industrial agriculture it’s also identifying the sterilisation of community spaces via mowing as a threat – I think the latter is happening a lot in the countryside too (Mark Cocker writes about this in ‘Our Place’). There hasn’t been as much recognition of this as there should be the amount of unnecessarily mowed to death land we have is pretty staggering, and even where that isn’t the case it isn’t necessarily due to a more enlightened attitude.

    I live very close to the Union canal and the display of wildflowers along its towpath is the most beautiful I’ve seen anywhere – combinations of meadowsweet and cranesbill, hawkweed and vetches and overall very diverse. I’d love to say this is the deliberate result of a mowing regime that maintains access and prevents scrub breaking up the canal banks, but avoids close mown short and dreary grass. But it’s not. Scottish Canals have a very limited budget for canal maintenance and I’m positive if it was bigger the towpath would be mowed to death, cutting can happen at anytime in the year not when it’s best for biodiversity.

    I’ve never seen Scottish Canals promote the value of the wildflowers or in fact any of the wildlife along the canal to users or tourists – the John Muir Trail goes along part of the canal and the Falkirk Wheel sits on it. I also noticed once that reeds growing at the side of the canal had a type of scorch mark on them which I’d seen on the farm when weedkiller had been sprayed – Scythe a brand name for paraquat. It looked like the contractors had sprayed a nasty herbicide actually on the surface of the canal in order to help keep the central channel clear for boat traffic. I emailed a complaint and never got a reply, but an acquaintance confirmed later they’d seen the same thing. I’m glad to say there are canal restoration groups in other parts of the country that are far more enlightened, but the core waterway organisations are trailing them badly.

    Maybe we should have local registers where the public can log areas of close mown grass on a website with suggestions for and examples of more sympathetic management. There are plenty of places I could nominate. Another issue is that while I’ve met a couple of great blokes that work in the council’s ground maintenance team in general it has a reputation for not giving a toss and kicking off if it’s expected to do anything different from what it already does. The sort of thing that’s critical, fundamental to address if we’ve to move forward, but politically awkward to do so and it’s shied away from. Progress is happening, but it’s very slow.

  2. I have family in Germany and have been lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time looking at butterflies and moths there. I can attest to the fact that there is much that is familiar in the German butterfly fauna but also the chance to see species that are either very scarce in the UK or not found here at all. This lepidopteran richness does not simply imply that the Germans have done a better job than us at protecting wildlife, though. To a significant degree it is an accident of biogeography – as a continental country with generally warmer, sunnier summers than the UK, Germany inevitably has more butterfly species than we do on our damp Atlantic island and this book (or at least Mark’s review of it as I have not yet read the book) is a timely reminder that the dispiriting trends we see in British wildlife are also occurring elsewhere.

    Analysis of the long term malaise trapping data of the Krefeld Entomological Society also revealed a startling decline in flying insect biomass in northern Germany over the past quarter century, again indicating that Germany, like us, has experienced widespread changes in its countryside that are unfavourable to wildlife. Other countries are also affected: in France, for example, the ‘Suivi Temporel des Oiseaux Communs’ (tracking common birds over time) survey has revealed huge declines in many common bird species.

    Of course, in terms of what we as individuals can do about all of this, the opportunity is greatest in our own country. We have the potential to put pressure more readily on our own politicians to affect changes in land management policies than on those of other countries and I believe it makes sense to concentrate most of our efforts on our home patch. But we should not forget that the pressure on wildlife is a truly international problem. Because of Brexit we have greatly reduced influence on EU policies but, as an example, the red-lines that we adopt in our trade deal negotiations with countries around the World have the potential to significantly affect the environment here and abroad. The latest noises emerging from the Department from International Trade are discouraging in this respect and suggest a move away from Tory manifesto promises to maintain our environmental (and animal welfare) standards in any trade deals that are struck. I believe that it is important that we do not embark on a race to the bottom in our environmental standards and hope we can persuade our political representatives of the folly of doing so.

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