The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2022 report, released last week by wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation, has revealed the alarming news that “In the UK, long-term trends show that 80% of butterfly species have declined in abundance or distribution, or both since the 1970s”.
State of Britain’s butterflies
Seven years on from the last State of the UK’s Butterflies report, the plight of insects and the warnings over the wider biodiversity crisis are becoming sharper. A staggering 80% of butterfly species are in decline, with those butterflies requiring specialist habitat emerging as the worst affected. Habitat loss across the UK, changing land use and climate change are all important factors in leading to these dramatic declines, particularly in species that require flower-rich grassland, heathland, and woodland clearings to thrive.
Half of all Britain’s remaining butterfly species are now listed as at risk of extinction on the British Red List.
Decreases in butterfly populations on this scale are a huge cause for concern as butterflies are an integral part of the UK ecosystem. The four UK nations are among the most ecologically degraded globally, with England ranking in seventh worst place out of 240 countries assessed in the Biodiversity Intactness Index. Northern Ireland was ranked as 12th worst, Wales followed in 16th place and Scotland was ranked in 28th place, just out of the worst 10% of countries. For people in these countries, where we claim to be ‘nature loving’, the connection to nature and biodiversity appears to have been lost.
The ‘State of the UK Butterflies’ report noted that, “Of the four UK countries, England’s butterflies have fared the worst with an overall distribution change of -45% since 1976, largely driven by a very steep (-75%) decrease in the distributions of habitat specialist species”.
Expert response to the report
Julie Williams, CEO of Butterfly Conservation, said: “This report is yet more compelling evidence of nature’s decline in the UK. We are totally dependent on the natural world for food, water and clean air. The state of our species and habitats shows that the natural world is in trouble. We need swift and effective action on this. The decline in butterflies we have seen in our own lifetimes is shocking and we can no longer stand by and watch the UK’s biodiversity being destroyed.”
Lead author of the report, Dr Richard Fox, commented that an urgent shift in government action and policy was required to meet this biodiversity crisis: “What is needed now is a step-change in government support to bring butterflies and other wildlife back to the UK’s nature reserves, farmland, forests and built-up areas.” He continued: “This comprehensive stock-take of the state of the UK’s butterflies reveals the huge scale of the challenge to halt and reverse the decline in butterfly populations in the years ahead.”
Butterfly Conservation is calling on the UK governments to step up and take the necessary action to protect habitats, help nature’s recovery, and prevent more species from being lost. They argue that the resources currently available for targeted species conservation action are woefully inadequate to address the scale of the task and to stem the ongoing decline of the UK’s butterflies.
The above ‘butterfly stripes’ graphic, building on the ‘biodiversity stripes’ visual from Miles Richardson and the perhaps more commonly known ‘climate stripes’ graphic by Ed Hawkins, highlights in sharp relief the declining distribution of UK butterflies over the last 50 years. As the ‘State of the UK Butterflies’ report acknowledges, “There are winners as well as losers, but Britain’s butterflies are among the most threatened in Europe”.
Sadly, media attention has already shifted in the past week away from this latest report, which is one of a series about biodiversity decline. Without information, people are less prompted to take action. At present, for the most part, we are simply standing by and watching the UK’s biodiversity being destroyed.
Taking action to protect butterflies
Emma Butler of Butterfly Conservation told Yorkshire Bylines that, “the report proves that targeted conservation measures work and have real impact”. The report highlighted the experience of the Purple Emperor butterfly, which has had a 58% increase in distribution from 1994 to 2019 and also a significant increase in abundance at monitored sites with a 110% increase from 1979 to 2019. The report notes the Knepp Estate, famous for its rewilding projects, as being a site where “388 Purple Emperors were counted on a single day in 2018”.
As Dr Fox says, “We know that where conservation action is carefully targeted and sustained in the long-term it has real impact”. And this doesn’t just have to be through rewilding projects; there are many ways in which people can be more proactive in their conservation work as a means of helping the decline in biodiversity.
Butler was keen to highlight: “If you are lucky enough to have a garden, think about how to make it friendly for butterflies and moths, including their caterpillars.” She urged the same for community spaces, with people becoming engaged in volunteer citizen science, or by lobbying their local council to use community areas in different ways.
With spring on its way, take these little steps today to make your garden butterfly friendly.