News Article | April 7, 2017
Mark Greaves, a butterfly enthusiast, points out the slope where he first spotted Phillip Cullen. “He and his mate parked in the layby, climbed over that locked gate, and he was down there running around with a little net.” Greaves asked Cullen what on earth he thought he was doing with a net on one of the most precious butterfly sites in the UK and was doubtful about the explanation. “He said he was looking for parasitic wasps and green-winged orchids,” said Greaves. “There were no green-winged orchids by that time of summer. Was he really interested in parasitic wasps? I doubt it. It seemed clear to me he was after the large blues.” A police inquiry was launched which resulted in Cullen, 57, being convicted of illegally capturing specimens of the rare and protected large blue and given a six-month suspended prison sentence. At Cullen’s home near Bristol police found dozens of specimens of rare butterflies. Cullen also had some images of parasitic wasps. Cullen’s case at Bristol magistrates court has focused attention on a fantastic conservation story: the revival of the large blue, and an uglier one: a trade in mounted butterflies that many might have thought vanished decades ago. The good news story first. The large blue was declared extinct in the UK in the 1970s but two scientists were determined it would fly again in the British countryside. Jeremy Thomas, a professor of ecology at Oxford University, worked out exactly what the large blue needed to survive – well-grazed grassland and the presence of a particular red ant for its caterpillars to feed on. David Simcox, a conservation consultant for the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, drove his VW camper van to Sweden, collected eggs from the large blues found there, and released caterpillars at carefully selected sites in the south-west of England. The remarkable life cycle of the large blue means it can only thrive in very particular habitats. Eggs are laid on the flower buds of wild thyme or marjoram. The larvae burrow into the flower heads and when they are about 4mm long drop to the ground and wait to be found by foraging red ants, attracting them with sweet secretions from a “honey” gland. The ants place them in their brood chamber and the larvae feed on ant grubs. They turn into butterflies, crawl above ground, and fly in midsummer. Daneway Banks nature reserve in Gloucestershire is one of the sites where the large blue has flourished and by last year there were an estimated 4,000 of these rare butterflies there. Greaves and his wife, Anna Pugh, both volunteers at Daneway Banks, with the reserve’s warden Alan Sumnall, showed the Guardian around on a sunlit day this week. As the skylarks sang and the green woodpeckers bobbed past, Greaves and Pugh, both members of the charity Butterfly Conservation, were crumbling pieces of trifle sponge on the herb-rich slopes to try to attract the red ants and count them as part of ongoing efforts to check that conditions are as near perfect for large blues as possible. “The cheaper and more sugary the sponge the better,” said Pugh. “They don’t seem to like the expensive version so much.” Within an hour, red ants were beating a track between trifle treats and their burrows and the couple declared themselves satisfied. It is far too early in the season for the large blues to appear but other species such as the brimstones, the commas and orange tips are at large. The Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, which has managed the site for half a century and bought it last year together with the Royal Entomological Society, is not resting on its laurels. It is busy fencing off parts of the reserve to create different types of habitat for other rare species of butterfly. Welsh ponies and sheep graze on the areas aimed at the large blue because they need closely shorn grass; another section is allowed to get more “tussocky” to appeal to the Duke of Burgundy; wild liquorice is encouraged in a third sector for the liquorice piercer micro-moth. Despite the bucolic scene, butterfly-watching is not as genteel as might be imagined. Getting the perfect picture can be competitive. Greaves and Pugh tell how one enthusiast was pushed into a thorn bush by a rival trying to capture the perfect image; another photographer was seen taking a picture of a large bluethen hurling a stick close to the insect so it fluttered away before a second fan could take a snap. Cullen, of course, went much further. Quite why remains sketchy. In Victorian times the large blue was highly prized by collectors because of its wonderful colour and its rarity, as its unusual life circle means it cannot be bred in captivity. Pugh said there was a market still for butterfly specimens. “People buy up old labels and cases and add in newly killed specimens.” The magistrates who sat at Cullen’s trial were told large blues can fetch £300 each. But it isn’t easy money. Daneway Banks and Collard Hill in Somerset, another large blue hotspot where Cullen was found, are considerable journeys for Cullen and catching butterflies can be painstaking work. “I think some people are also just fascinated with collecting rare things,” said Pugh. One twist in the tale is that Cullen was also a member of Butterfly Conservation. The charity’s chief executive, Julie Williams, said: “Butterfly Conservation is utterly opposed to the illegal killing, capturing and possession of butterflies and moths. As a result of Mr Cullen’s actions, the Butterfly Conservation board of trustees moved swiftly to revoke his membership of the charity. “More than three-quarters of the UK’s butterflies have declined in the last 40 years so for Mr Cullen to illegally catch and kill one of our most threatened species that is slowly recovering following extinction is unforgivable.”
News Article | April 12, 2017
Butterflies in the UK have suffered one of their worst years on record, with 70% of all species experiencing a decline in numbers over the past year, according to conservationists. The annual UK butterfly monitoring scheme (UKBMS) found that 40 out of the 57 species studied saw numbers drop between 2015 and 2016, making 2016 the fourth worst year on record for the insects. The results were even worse when the UK’s three migratory butterfly species, the red admiral, clouded yellow and painted lady – whose numbers are dependent on weather in Europe – were excluded from the study. Leaving out those species makes 2016 the second worst year on record for butterflies in Britain. Experts said the bad news was the result of a mild winter and a cold spring – both of which can be harmful to butterflies. The largely pleasant summer weather, which is normally ideal for butterflies, came too late to make up for the damage done earlier in the year. “They’re very sensitive to weather and environmental change,” said Professor Tom Brereton, head of monitoring at Butterfly Conservation. “So they can respond quickly to positive conservation , but they can get knocked back by the weather and the weather’s been quite unpredictable really.” Brereton said milder winters were harmful for butterflies because of the increased rate of diseases, predation and the disruption of overwintering behaviour – for example, butterflies or caterpillars emerging from winter hibernation too early and then being killed when cold weather returns. Cold springs were damaging because they limited the ability of butterflies to fly, meaning they cannot breed and lay eggs. British Butterflies have experienced serious long-term decline since the UKBMS started in 1976, with roughly 60% of species affected. The study involves thousands of volunteers collecting data through the summer and involves monitoring 57 out of the UK’s 59 butterfly species. Two butterfly species that live in remote parts of Scotland are left out. Several species had their worst years on record over the past year, including the wall, grayling, white-letter hairstreak and white admiral butterflies, as well as grizzled skippers, whose numbers fell by 24% over the year to a record low. Serious concerns have also been raised about the heath fritillary, a species only found in a handful of sites in southern England. Its numbers have fallen 82% in a decade. It was, however, a good year for 17 species, including some of the rarest types of butterfly in the country, including the large blue, which was reintroduced to the UK after becoming extinct in 1979. Its numbers were up 38% compared with 2015. The red admiral also recorded a rise of 86%.
News Article | April 15, 2017
Perched on the telegraph wires in my Somerset village, is a swallow – all the way back from its winter quarters in Africa. In my back garden, orange-tip and small tortoiseshell butterflies are searching for nectar. And everywhere I look, spring foliage is filling the countryside with green. This has been a vintage spring for wildlife watchers. Thanks to a spell of fine, settled weather at the end of March and the beginning of April, bluebells carpet forest floors, the dawn chorus is reaching its peak, and living creatures – from natterjack toads to great crested newts, bumblebees to badgers – are out in force. What more could we wish for on Easter weekend? But let’s not be fooled. The announcement by Butterfly Conservation that in 2016 Britain’s butterflies had one of their worst years ever, together with the RSPB’s latest report on threatened birds, showing that the curlew, grey wagtail and merlin are all now “red-listed”, should be a wake-up call for us all. Our wildlife is on a rollercoaster ride: some species are doing well, but more are in decline. The good news is that, even a decade ago, it would have been unthinkable to imagine buzzards and ravens over my home, and great white egrets, bitterns and cranes down the road on the Somerset Levels. But, in that same period, we have witnessed the decline of hares and hedgehogs, house sparrows and skylarks, and so many other much-loved creatures of the British countryside – thanks mainly to our modern obsession with cheap food, no matter what the cost to our wildlife. That’s partly why – with my friend, colleague and co-author Brett Westwood – I have written the book Wonderland: A Year of Britain’s Wildlife, Day by Day. By including an entry for every single day of the year, we hoped to draw people’s attention to the joys of watching wildlife, at a time when it needs us more than ever. Between us, we have chalked up a century of wildlife-watching experience. As children, each growing up amid suburban sprawl – Brett on the edge of Birmingham, me on the outskirts of London – we developed a hands-on love of the natural world. We collected frogspawn and watched in wonder as it hatched into tadpoles, which then became frogs. We marvelled at the caterpillars we kept in jam jars, as they munched their way through nasturtium leaves, pupated and metamorphosed into butterflies. And we went fishing for tiddlers – dipping our nets into streams to see what treasures we could find. Through enormous good fortune, we later managed to turn our passion into our careers, making TV and radio programmes for the BBC Natural History Unit. But with knowledge and experience, comes fear: the worry that some of the creatures we know so well may not be with us for much longer. And yet we remain optimistic. We have to, for the natural world is far too important to our lives for us to allow it to fade away. So now that another spring is with us – surely the most exciting time in nature’s calendar – we’re going to spend as much time as possible enjoying the natural wonders still on offer. Wherever you live in the UK – in a town, a city, or in the heart of the countryside – it’s time to connect with the natural world. You don’t have to be an expert – everyone can look, listen and learn about nature. Believe me, you won’t regret it! Wonderland: A Year of Britain’s Wildlife, Day by Day, by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss, is out now (John Murray, £20) Date Date The decision to let garlic mustard, an invasive flowering herb, thrive in a wild part of the garden has just rewarded me with one of my best doorstep encounters. Garlic mustard is a food plant for the orange-tip butterfly, the epitome of April, a mercurial pilgrim of woodland rides and sunny hedgerows. The spring males, whose wing tips are dipped in vibrant tangerine, appear distracted in their early flights, darting this way and that, backtracking and sideslipping, but always on the move. They’re looking for the plainer, grey-and-white females, and they travel long distances to find one. The story began last June, when I found an orange-tip pupa, like a small green longbow, attached by silk threads to the seed pods of the garlic mustard. Although I hadn’t seen an adult butterfly in the garden, one had clearly passed through and laid eggs. How many caterpillars hatched I can’t say, but only a few will have survived: orange-tip larvae are cannibalistic. As autumn drew on, the pupa turned brown to match the drying garlic mustard stalk and resembled a seed pod. April is here now, and a couple of days ago I saw a dark spot that I hadn’t noticed before. Was it some fungal infection marking the butterfly’s demise? I went indoors to answer a phone call and, during those 20 minutes, the miracle had happened. Clinging to the tattered chrysalis was a female orange-tip, her filigreed hind wings still rumpled, her head and legs thickly furred with pale hairs. Over the next two hours, her wings stiffened and, work suspended, I waited while she took her first faltering flight. We all know about the transformation from caterpillar into butterfly, but the emergence of this fragile insect after months of surveillance, a butterfly I actively encouraged by adding its food plants to my garden, has given me a pleasure out of all proportion to its simplicity. I feel honoured. Date Date As dusk falls on a muggy May evening, a strange crowd of people gathers around a pond somewhere in lowland Britain. Sporting wellington boots and head torches, they have come in search of our largest and most impressive amphibian: the great crested newt. During the breeding season, from April to June, the male of this species sports a magnificent crest along the whole length of his back and tail, which rises up when the animal is under water so he can use it to display to his rivals. Great crested newts are the top dog of the amphibian world: growing up to 16cm long, they have a rough, warty skin: it’s dark above with tiny white spots, and orange below with darker blotches. That underside pattern is not just distinctive, it is also unique: one group of scientists from the University of Kent use photographs to identify individual newts, which they then name after Hollywood stars – not out of any resemblance, however. Like their namesakes, great crested newts often appear in the newspapers, though for a very different reason. Tabloid journalists often rail against the perceived insanity of the presence of a colony of these amphibians bringing a busy building site to a halt, or thousands of pounds supposedly being spent to relocate them. And perhaps they have a point: after all, most of us have never even seen one and, in fact, they are fairly numerous and widespread in Britain, which is home to a good proportion of the European population. But it says a lot for the British love of wildlife that we don’t just safeguard glamorous and showy species, but shy, gawky ones too, and these adaptable creatures can usually be relocated without any harm. By the end of the evening, the pond’s newts have been caught, checked and released, and another few pieces of information have been added to our knowledge of this, our biggest and most colourful amphibian. Date Date No other flower holds quite the same place in the nation’s hearts as the bluebell. Like our favourite bird, the robin, and our best-known tree, the oak, it has become a symbol of what it means to be British. This is appropriate, given that, globally, the bluebell has a very limited range: it is confined to the western shores of the great Eurasian landmass, where the Atlantic-influenced maritime climate – generally mild and wet – allows this little flower to grow in profusion. The name “bluebell” seems to have been with us for ever, so I am surprised to learn that it first appeared in print barely 200 years ago, in the last decade of the 18th century. The name was in use much earlier, but it was applied to a completely different plant, the harebell, a flower that tends to prefer sunnier, more open settings. Poets have been much taken with the true bluebell: John Keats called it the “Sapphire queen of the mid-May”, while Alfred, Lord Tennyson compared a carpet of bluebells to “the blue sky, breaking up through the earth”. But even this is topped by Gerard Manley Hopkins who, in his journal for 1871, wrote of bluebells “in falls of sky-colour washing the brows and slacks of the ground with vein-blue”. Sadly, these spring carpets of bluebells are now under threat on two flanks, both, ironically, a result of our very British passion for gardening. Bluebells are vulnerable to having their bulbs pulled up by people wanting to replant them in their gardens – an act that is now illegal, as well as selfish. And wild bluebell displays are often infiltrated by stands of Spanish bluebells, a popular garden variety with stiffer, less drooping flowers, which freely hybridises with native plants. Fortunately, there are still enough displays of pure British bluebells for us to enjoy: from Cape Wrath at the tip of Scotland to our most southerly outpost, the Isles of Scilly. And, on a sunlit spring morning, as I walk serenaded by birdsong, I find it hard to imagine a more classic wildflower experience than a British bluebell wood in full bloom. Date Date The skies over the barnyard next to our home in Somerset have been silent for six months now, ever since, on a breezy day in late September last year, the swallows circled for the very last time, and then turned and headed purposefully south for Africa. But now, on a fine spring afternoon, they’re back - and it’s as if they’ve never been away. Twittering fills the air and, though it is sometimes frowned upon to ascribe human emotions to birds, I find it almost impossible not to imagine that these are sounds of joy, happiness and relief. That’s certainly what I - and many of us - feel when we see that “our” swallows are safely back. For these delicate little birds, each weighing about 20g – rather less than an ounce - have flown almost 10,000km to be here. A few weeks ago, they were sunning themselves in the skies around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. Then, driven by tiny changes in the chemical processes in their brains, they began to head north. They crossed the tropical savannahs and equatorial forests, skirted the vast Sahara desert, and then flew over the Mediterranean and France until they reached the Channel, almost within sight of home. Here, bad weather at the very end of March delayed their arrival for a few days; but then the skies cleared, the barometer began to rise, and conditions were finally right for them to complete the last leg of their epic journey. Until then, they had been using the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate but, in the final few miles of their voyage, they found their way by following familiar landmarks, until they arrived at this Somerset barn - the very place they hatched less than a year ago. Here they will build their rather tatty nest on a wooden beam and spend the summer raising a family. It’s no wonder, then, that the swallow is such a potent symbol of the coming of spring, not just here in Britain but all across the northern hemisphere - from Canada to Japan. This symbolism goes all the way back to the dawn of human culture: references to the return of the swallow can be found in the writings of ancient Greece and the Old Testament book of Jeremiah: “Yea, the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times; and the turtle [dove] and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming...” So, as I watch them reacquaint themselves with their summer home, I can’t help but feel that the swallows’ return, which I have just been privileged to witness, is little short of a miracle. Date Date Scarlet longhorns are very beautiful insects, with softly hairy, ruby-coloured wing cases, black legs and long, segmented antennae. Once, they were found only in a few sites in the Welsh Marches - hence their alternative name of Welsh longhorn - but now, for reasons that aren’t clear, their numbers appear to be increasing and they are turning up in woodlands in several places in England and Wales. Indeed, on the hunt for them last May, we soon found a score of the newly emerged beetles wandering across the cut logs. They’re most easily spotted on log piles (always inspect log piles from the ground, as they can be unstable). Look on oak timber that has been cut within the past year or so, or on the bark of dead oaks; on warm days, I have seen the males flying in, using their long antennae to detect the scent of cut timber, and of the opposite sex. The British countryside is also home to other wood-loving longhorns, which are some of our most attractive insects. One small, narrow-bodied version, the wasp beetle, is not only banded black and yellow to fool predators, it also moves in the same jerky way as a wasp, but is completely harmless. On warm spring days, the beautiful black-spotted longhorn crawls so slowly over logs that if you wanted to, you could pick it up. These beetles have blackish wing cases, thickly dusted with golden vermiculations and a dark eyespot on each one. They are around from mid-April until June, and like most longhorns, never ignore the scent of freshly cut timber.
News Article | June 22, 2017
The purple plumes of railway-side buddleias are emptied of insects. A single white butterfly is dancing, alone, in a grassy park. Suburban gardens are unvisited by red admirals or small tortoiseshells. The disappearance of butterflies from the British countryside over the past half-century is well documented, but a new study warns that they are also vanishing from UK cities, more quickly than in rural areas. Researchers examined 28 common British butterfly species over 20 years to 2014 and found their numbers fell by 69% in urban areas compared to a 45% decline in the countryside. Some species are disappearing alarmingly quickly: small heath butterfly numbers fell by 78% in urban areas compared to 17% in rural areas; the small copper declined by 75% in urban areas, and 23% in rural areas. Because they are so well studied, butterflies are an indicator species: when they are declining, so too will thousands of less visible – but equally important – pollinators and other insects. The causes of butterflies’ disappearance from the countryside is relatively well understood by scientists, who blame a combination of industrial agriculture, neglect of forests and climate change. But what’s causing the butterflies to vanish from cities? The first and most easily understood cause is habitat loss. Green cities are becoming grey. The number of front gardens totally paved over has tripled from 1.5 million to 4.59 million between 2005 and 2015, according to the Royal Horticultural Society. A London survey found that the capital is losing the equivalent of two-and-a-half Hyde Parks of greenery a year from its domestic gardens – about 3,000ha (7,410 acres). Successful applications to councils for dropped kerbs to allow cars to drive over them (where gardens are converted into parking) increased by 49% between 2013 and 2015. The paving over of gardens was blamed in several press reports for the decline of urban butterflies. But there’s no simple, single cause, according to the co-author of the joint study by Butterfly Conservation, Kent university and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. “There are a lot of different factors. Paving over gardens is definitely a problem but it’s not the only one and probably not the biggest either,” says Prof Tom Brereton of Butterfly Conservation. Many larger gardens have been divided up and built on in recent years, and changing garden fashions are reducing the butterfly-friendly habitat. “Generally there’s more artificial space now in your average garden with decking and barbecue areas,” says Brereton, who points out that gardeners also use more pesticides per area than farmers. More widely, brownfield sites - an area of land previously used or built upon, which are some of the best insect habitats - are increasingly targeted for development. Austerity has meant that local councils’ contractors scalp verges and green areas once or twice a year, destroying wildflowers and the insects that depend on them. “River banks and roadsides are just cut down to a bowling green as efficiently as possible to save money. You’d think all the messages about wildlife verges would have got through, but it still hasn’t really,” says Brereton. “Countryside services that local authorities provide have collapsed in some areas and been drastically reduced in others.” This loss and fragmentation of habitat particularly affects insects that aren’t as strong fliers and are less able to find new sources of food, such as the small heath and small copper. (The powerful flying red admiral’s urban decline has been less pronounced than other species.) Brereton cites two other major factors which are causing urban butterflies to disappear. Climate change appears to be exacerbated by the urban heat island effect in towns and cities, and so butterfly species struggle to adapt to warmer winters – a common problem for a number of British species – are finding it even harder in urban spaces. Finally, the impact of pollution, particularly from diesel-powered vehicles, is unknown but may be more significant than scientists suspect. The sheer volume of traffic is leading to higher nitrogen deposition, which has been linked to butterfly declines in the Netherlands. Researchers found that it led to a decline in plants that prefer less fertile soils. The butterflies suffering the biggest UK declines, the small copper and small heath, both prefer plants that grow in low-fertility soil. Nitrogen deposition also reduces the quality of plants. In effect, said the Dutch scientists, it turns plants into junk food for insects. Butterfly Conservation is now refocusing its efforts on towns and wants the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to adopt the annual urban butterfly data as an indicator of environmental health, and act to stop further declines. “We want to do more for butterflies in urban areas,” says Brereton. “We’re looking to develop more urban projects and engage more people.” Some cities are already engaged – and some urban areas even offer better butterfly-watching than the surrounding countryside. Michael Blencowe, co-author of The Butterflies of Sussex, a new “atlas” of butterfly sightings in the region, says that rare butterflies including the white-letter hairstreak and migratory swallowtails from continental Europe and long-tailed blues are more easily found in Brighton than in rural parts of the county. “Right through Brighton there’s as much diversity as you’ll find on the remotest downland valley,” he says. “Some of the most exciting sightings for our atlas came from people’s back gardens.” The white-letter hairstreak lives on elm, and while Dutch elm disease wiped out most elm trees in the 1970s, many survive in Brighton. “This is quite a rare butterfly and people have it in their front gardens in Brighton,” says Blencowe. “If you want to see them, you can simply stand by the Royal Pavilion.” Brighton is unusually good for butterflies because of its geology: the city is built on the chalk downs, and chalk grassland is one of the best places for wildflowers and the insects that depend upon them. In such places, gardeners can have a real impact. “All you’ve got to do in Brighton is go out with a shovel and spend half an hour scraping the topsoil off your back garden and you’ve created one of the UK’s rarest habitats [chalk grassland] in your back garden,” says Blencowe. Brighton resident and teacher Dan Danahar has gone much further. Nine years ago, he created a “butterfly haven” in the grounds of Dorothy Stringer High School – exposing the chalk beneath the standard lushly grassed playing fields and getting pupils to plant wild flowers. Unexpectedly, this little oasis swiftly attracted Britain’s smallest butterfly, the small blue, which is rare and previously thought not particularly adept at navigating cities. “We’ve got unbelievable numbers of common butterflies such as the common blue and small blues all over the site now,” says Danahar. After the success of Danahar’s havens, he persuaded the Brighton and Hove Council to adopt his vision. The council has created 25 “butterfly havens” across the city. You can see one, at White Hawk, from Google Earth. What the satellite pictures won’t show are the rare Adonis blues and silver-spotted skippers which fly on the site – two species which were so rare in the 1980s it was feared they would go extinct. According to Danahar, it doesn’t cost a council much to create such havens: “Get one of your guys with a bulldozer to scrape the turf off the chalk and put some local wild flower plugs in – the kids put them in, and it’s a whole community-wide engagement.” Danahar will soon create a new haven on a steep piece of Brighton seafront. He plans to plant nectar and food plants for migratory insects such as broadleaved everlasting pea – the foodplant of the long-tailed blue. “Think of the ecotourism potential – people travel from Scotland to see this butterfly,” he says. In 2014, Brighton was made a Unesco World Biosphere, a conservation designation which helps protect its important chalk grassland, shingle beaches and undersea chalk reefs. Then there’s the fact its council (Green party controlled from 2011 to 2015) has historically been engaged in environmental issues. Has this local political focus benefitted butterflies? “I think it has. The whole biosphere designation has helped,” says Blencowe. “I always hear complaints about the council, as anywhere, but they put these butterfly banks in. They don’t look great compared to rows of begonias but they are working and there are enough people in Brighton pushing for them and enjoying them. Other urban areas aren’t going to be chalk grassland but just planting nectar-rich flowers will attract lots of butterflies and bees.” Some councils are getting the message: Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, East Sussex and Bristol are among councils to have adopted “pollinator action plans”. Burnley borough council estimates it is saving £58,000 per year by reducing grass-cutting to benefit wildlife. Such policies are popular too; according to a recent survey for Friends of the Earth, 81% of the public support plans to cut roadside verges and parkland less often to help wild flowers and bees. Danahar is convinced that people can help many more cities become hotspots for butterflies and other wildlife. “We are putting a band aid back on the landscape and enabling this species to spread. It’s not rocket science but you need the will and you need the knowhow. It’s not about glass half empty or glass half full, we’ve simply got to fill that glass up, and create new habitat.” Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook to join the discussion, and explore our archive here
News Article | May 10, 2017
Conservationists are to coat pieces of rubber with the scent of female moths as part of a survey of a rare species in the Cairngorms. In the UK, the Kentish glory is only found in north east Scotland. Their fast flight makes the species hard to identify so conservationists are to lure males to the "fake female", which will be placed on trees. The Kentish glory is one of six of Scotland's rarest insects to be targeted in a new conservation project. The others are the shining guest ant, dark bordered beauty moth, small scabious mining bee, northern silver-stiletto fly and pine hoverfly. Small scabious mining bees can only be found in Scotland in the Cairngorms and feed exclusively on a plant known as devil's-bit scabious - so called because the roots come to an abrupt end "as if the devil had bitten them off". Focused on the Cairngorms National Park, the new three-year conservation project involves RSPB Scotland, Cairngorms National Park Authority, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation and Scottish Natural Heritage. Funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, the initiative will involve recruiting volunteers to help with survey work. The surveys will help to establish the size and distribution of the species' populations, as well as guiding efforts to better protect them. Gabrielle Flinn, of the Rare Invertebrates in the Cairngorms Project, said: "The Cairngorms National Park is well known for its iconic species such as the capercaillie and wildcat, but it's also the last refuge for some of Scotland's rarest insects. "For the next three years the project will be working to conserve some of these rare species spread across the parks key habitats, from aspen woodland to flower rich grasslands. "We'll be relying on people in and around the park to lend a hand, so if you're passionate about the smaller things in life we'd love to hear from you."
News Article | October 31, 2016
Increasingly frequent extreme weather events could threaten butterfly populations in the UK and could be the cause of recently reported butterfly population crashes, according to research from the University of East Anglia (UEA). Researchers investigated the impact of Extreme Climatic Events (ECEs) on butterfly populations. The study shows that the impact can be significantly positive and negative, but questions remain as to whether the benefits outweigh the negative effects. While it is well known that changes to the mean climate can affect ecosystems, little is known about the impact of short-term extreme climatic events (ECEs) such as heatwaves, heavy rainfall or droughts. Osgur McDermott-Long, PhD student and lead author from the School of Environmental Sciences at UEA, said: "This is the first study to examine the effects of extreme climate events across all life stages of the UK butterflies from egg to adult butterfly. We wanted to identify sensitive life stages and unravel the role that life history traits play in species sensitivity to ECEs." The researchers used data from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS), a high-quality long-term dataset of UK butterfly abundances collected from over 1,800 sites across the UK, spanning 37 years, to examine the effects of weather data and extreme events (drought, extremes of rain, heat and cold) on population change. The team looked at resident species of butterflies, those which only breed once in a year, and those having more than one brood annually. Multi-brood species were found to be more vulnerable than single brood species and in general extremes of temperature rather than precipitation were found to influence changes in butterfly populations. Dr Aldina Franco, co-author said: "A novel finding of this study was that precipitation during the pupal (cocoon) life-stage was detrimental to over one quarter of the species. This study also found that extreme heat during the 'overwintering' life stage was the most detrimental extreme weather event affecting over half of UK species. This may be due to increased incidents of disease or potentially extreme hot temperatures acting as a cue for butterflies or their larvae to come out from overwintering too early and subsequently killed off by temperatures returning to colder conditions." In addition to the negative impacts, the authors found that some life stages may benefit from climatic extreme weather, with extreme heat in the adult stage causing a positive population change in over one third of the UK species. Dr Franco, added: "This is not an unexpected finding given that butterflies are warm loving creatures. Years with extreme warm summers and winters may have mixed effects. For example, this year was terrible for butterflies, although the summer was warm the number of butterflies counted during the Big Butterfly Count was particularly low. Our study indicates that this could have resulted from the detrimental effects of the warm winter, for example the recent low counts1 of Gatekeeper, Common Blue, Comma, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies could be explained by our results due to their negative response to warm winters which was just experienced2." Mr McDermott Long said: "The study has demonstrated previously unknown sensitivities of our UK butterflies to extreme climatic events, which are becoming more frequent with climate change. Some of these effects are undoubtedly putting future populations at risk, such as extremely warm winters, however we've seen that warm and even climatically extreme hot summers may actually benefit butterflies. Further research is needed regarding the balance of the importance that these variables could have, to see if the benefits of warmer summers will be outweighed by the detrimental winter effects." Dr Tom Brereton from Butterfly Conservation and a co-author of the study, said: "If we are to mitigate against extreme events as part of conservation efforts, in particular, we need a better understanding of the habitat conditions which can lead to successful survival of adult, pupal and overwintering life stages of UK butterflies in these situations." This work is part of Osgur McDermott-Long's PhD project funded by the University of East Anglia and with Butterfly Conservation and the Biological Records Centre as project partners. Prof Rachel Warren, Dr Aldina Franco and Dr Jeff Price and are the PhD supervisors. External co-authors include Dr Tom Brereton from Butterfly Conservation and Dr Marc Botham from Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. 'Sensitivity of UK butterflies to local climatic extremes: which life stages are most at risk?' is published in The Journal of Animal Ecology.
News Article | January 19, 2017
Small island species, confined to limited terrain, are always vulnerable, particularly to invasive species, burgeoning human populations, and new diseases. On Hawaii, climate change intersects with these three factors to imperil its unique birds, including six species of honeycreeper. The small, often brightly coloured honeycreepers tend to survive at higher altitudes where their forest habitat is less likely to be destroyed by humans. Higher elevations are also cooler, and less attractive to mosquitoes, which were first carried to Hawaii in the 19th century, long after the birds had evolved there. Outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases such as avian malaria and avian pox began soon afterwards. As the world warms, so mosquitoes move into higher elevations – and there is nowhere for the honeycreepers to escape to. The birds are particularly susceptible to avian malaria. Last year, a scientific study noted that the prevalence of avian malaria has more than doubled since the 1990s in the upper regions of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Naturalists working in the Kauai mountains never encountered mosquitoes despite searching for them until the last six years or so, during which time they have become commonplace. As well as mosquitos, climate change is also assisting non-native competitors and invasive weeds, which may hasten the native birds’ demise. Eben Paxton, of the US Geological Survey’s Pacific Island Ecosystems research centre, fears that two honeycreepers, the ‘akikiki and the ‘akeke’e, will fall extinct in the next decade “without major intervention”. This means action unfamiliar to many conservationists: removing standing water to reduce mosquito populations, and even releasing genetically modified mosquitoes to reduce populations over time, as undertaken in Brazil to combat the Zika virus. The Baird’s sandpiper (Calidris bairdii) is not likely to become extinct any time soon. It is still listed as a species of “least concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. But the challenge posed by climate change for this elegant little wading bird is one experienced by many other species: it’s a problem of phenology and synchronicity. Phenology, the study of the timing of natural events in relation to weather and climate, is increasingly complex and important in an era of rapid climate change. Changes in phenology may be a positive sign, demonstrating that species are adapting to climatic conditions and migrating earlier, or flowering sooner, or having offspring earlier in the spring to coincide with food supplies that are changing with the season. But many species are struggling to adapt quickly enough. Increasing temperates in the high Arctic are encouraging shore birds such as the Baird’s sandpiper to breed earlier in the season. This means that more chicks are emerging before the peak abundance of the insects that they feed own. Studies show that chicks raised outside the period of peak abundance grow much more slowly, which means they are less likely to survive into adulthood. A similar mismatch between chick emergence and peak food has also been shown to occur with the European pied flycatcher in the Netherlands. Increasing temperatures are posing a challenge for all kinds of montane species. They may retreat to higher altitudes but, eventually, they will run out of mountain. Mountainous regions are also likely to experience particularly extreme temperature changes: while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that 21st-century climate warming is likely to exceed 2C in many scenarios, the rate of temperature increase in mountainous areas is predicted to be much higher – possibly three times the increase recorded over the 20th century. The giant mountain lobelia (Lobelia rhynchopetalum) is a native of Ethiopia, a spectacular-looking tropical alpine plant that resembles a spiky tropical palm but then shoots up a huge woolly protuberance, sometimes more than 10 metres tall. Implausibly large in arid mountainous terrain, the family of lobelia plants remarkably predate the formation of tall mountains in eastern Africa, to which they’ve adapted. They are not finding it so easy to adapt to rapid anthropogenic climate change. A scientific study of the plant’s prospects last year concluded it “will suffer massive reduction in range” under warmer climes, with just 3.4% of its habitat still suitable by 2080. By then, it is predicted to be confined to just four suitable mountain-top habitats “which may be too small to sustain viable populations”. There’s a further problem. As alpine species such as the giant mountain lobelia are confined to isolated mountaintops, their genetic diversity will narrow dramatically – by 82% – further increasing the likelihood of extinction. The travails of this mountain giant are matched by mountain plant species around the world, including high-altitude species in Britain. Botanist Trevor Dines, of the charity Plantlife, says: “It’s already clear that some of our rarest Arctic-alpine plants, such as Highland saxifrage, are at risk. As the climate warms, they’re already moving to higher altitudes to find cooler, damper conditions. At some point, they’ll run out of mountain to climb and we’ll be facing the extinction of some of our most enigmatic and wonderful flora.” For many creatures, climate change is the most vicious component of a perfect storm driving them towards extinction. For some, extinction is quite literally caused by storms and rising seas. Anthropogenic climate change has almost certainly driven our first mammal species to extinction. The Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola), or mosaic-tailed rat, lived the unobtrusive life of a small rodent in the eastern Torres Strait. It was first discovered – and killed – on the tiny vegetated coral island of Bramble Cay by Europeans in 1845. Several hundred lived there as recently as 1978. But the highest point of Bramble Cay is three metres above sea level and around the Torres Strait the sea level rose at almost twice the global average rate between 1993 and 2014. Since 1998, the area of Bramble Cay above high tide has shrunk from from 4 hectares to 2.5 hectares. The melomys has lost 97% of its habitat and was last seen by a fisherman in 2009. Scientists laid traps in 2011 and twice in 2014 to catch the little rodent and start a captive breeding programme to save it from extinction. But they were too late: they couldn’t find any trace of the animal. There’s a small chance an as-yet-undiscovered population may survive in Papua New Guinea but the scientists have judged it is almost certainly extinct. The Sierra Nevada blue (Polyommatus golgus) is a small butterfly that is both brilliant blue (the male) and dark black-brown (the female) and is one of four endangered species unique to Spain. It is only found in the peaks of the Sierra Nevada and in another small mountainous area further north. It has already lost habitat to overgrazing by animals, a ski resort, and the trampling of vegetation by people on roads and footpaths. But its biggest threat is climate change, according to a species recovery plan drawn up by the researcher Miguel Munguira for Butterfly Conservation Europe. Drought, increased temperatures and reduced snow coverage are set to displace the species to higher areas where the habitat might not be suitable. “For the populations living on the highest areas of the mountains these changes would mean their extinction,” says Munguira. Of the 482 species of butterfly in Europe, 149 are restricted to such small areas that it is difficult for scientists to assess how the changing climate will affect them. Isolated in such small pockets of land makes these rare insects hugely vulnerable – wild habitat is too fragmented for even winged creatures to easily find a suitable alternative. And those that can only live in northern Europe, or on the tops of mountain ranges, will be the first to go. “The scale of threat to the species of Europe is massive,” says Nigel Bourn, conservation director of Butterfly Conservation in Britain. “I don’t really think policymakers have even begun to come to terms with that.” The disappearance of a few butterflies may not move the hardest of human hearts but these are the most closely monitored insects: the impact of climate change on hundreds of butterflies will be replicated in other less-known pollinators and insect populations – from bees to hoverflies – and the very fabric of life on earth will start to fray. Rising seas and stormy weather will affect turtle species in the most direct of ways, eroding or destroying many of the beaches where they lay their eggs. But scientists have discovered that hotter sands also cause greater numbers of sea turtles to be born female. In the short term, over the next 20 or 30 years, this will increase turtle numbers. But a study published in Nature Climate Change examining the loggerhead turtles of Cape Verde in the Atlantic, warns that significantly warmer sands in the next 150 years could cause such a preponderance of females that species become extinct. Hotter sand can also cause complete nest failure. Turtles are facing more problems than most animals: warming ocean temperatures will alter currents and shift the distribution and abundance of prey species. Species such as the hawksbill turtle are dependant on coral reefs which are bleaching and dying with climate change. The Adélie penguin is one of just two true Antarctic penguins, surviving on the ice-bound continent for 45,000 years. Now its survival is being questioned by scientists puzzling over the precise cause for sharp declines that correlate with a rapidly changing climate. Colonies of this little penguin on the West Antarctic Peninsula have declined by at least 80% since the 1970s, and this is an area with more years of warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures than other regions. Changes in sea temperature and sea ice affects the availability of food, and where fish populations have fallen the penguins eat more krill, which is less nutritious. Nest sites may not be ideal if warming is creating premature melt and puddles on the ground as eggs cannot survive if they are lying in a pool of water. Most importantly, the Adéie penguin cannot survive without sea ice. In a paper published last year, researchers predicted that 60% of the present habitat would be unsuitable for the penguins by 2099. But Adélie populations in the southern most parts of Antarctica, where there has been fewer climatic and environmental changes, are much more stable. The Adélie has refugia but for how long? The polar bear may be the poster-creature of climate change victims but this equally attractive – and rather more timid – white furry mammal is much closer to the edge of extinction. This arboreal marsupial lives on the wooded slopes of Mount Lewis in the Daintree rainforest in Queensland, Australia, where scientists have judged it already “ecologically extinct”. The white lemuroid ringtail possum (Hemibelideus lemuroides) lives off leaf moisture and are only found in the high-altitude cloud forest and cannot survive temperatures above 30C for more than a few hours. At less than 3,000 metres high, the climate of Mount Lewis is rapidly changing. A severe heatwave in 2005 killed off most of these cool-loving creatures. In July 2014, scientists observed four or five adults during 10 surveys. Even if the population bounces back, soon it will have nowhere left to go. Genetic studies have never been carried out to determine whether the white possums are a separate species or simply colour variations of the brown-furred lemuroid ringtail possums, which appear to be able to survive higher temperatures. But Prof Bill Laurance of James Cook University has argued that the white form is “a unique evolutionary unit and therefore worthy of conservation”. It is also just one furry symbol of the “ecological catastrophe” that scientists warn will soon befall thousands of species who will find that Australia’s tropical rainforests offer them no shelter in an era of warming. The most commonly pictured victim of climate change is the polar bear clinging to a rapidly diminishing iceberg. But there is another vulnerable Arctic mammal that is just as photogenic and even more dependant upon Arctic sea ice for its survival. Climate change is driving polar bears from the safety of sea ice and on to hazardous dry land, and into more conflict with humans. But the ringed seal, the smallest Arctic seal species, cannot adapt to dry land so easily. Ringed seals rest on sea ice, conceive beneath it, and give birth upon it, excavating snow dens on the surface of the sea ice to shelter their newborns. These dens keep the young warm, and depends upon sufficient annual snowfall. Warmer spring temperatures causes snow dens to collapse and the ice to break up early, separating young – just 60cm long when born – from their mothers, and exposing them to the cold, predators and pathogens. Ring seal reproductive rates are already showing declines associated with climate change. Hundreds of pups are usually born each year on the fjords along the west coast of Svalbard but pups were “virtually non-existent” in 2006 and 2007, when many fjords did not freeze for the first time in recorded history. If ringed seal populations slump, there will be another victim, too: they are the prime food source of the polar bear. Coral is not merely a living species; it’s a miraculous ecosystem engineer, building elaborate and beautiful subterranean structures that provide food and shelter for so many other forms of life on Earth. Coral reefs are hailed as the “rainforest of the sea” but such analogies underplay their significance: they house a greater diversity of animal and plant life than rainforests. Coral is being killed by climate change and its extinction is coming sooner than many other creatures imperilled by climate change. Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) is experiencing disastrous declines in its range in the southern Gulf of Mexico, Florida and the Bahamas, declining by up to 98% in parts of the Caribbean since the 1980s. It is listed as “critically endangered” on the IUCN red list. Since 2005, the Caribbean region has lost 50% of its corals, largely because of rising sea temperatures and mass bleaching incidents which have killed coral around the world. Species such as the orange-spotted filefish are completely dependent on coral reefs, and highly sensitive to warmer water. Across the world, coral reefs are bleaching and dying: Japan’s government this year reported that almost three-quarters of its biggest coral reef has died, blaming rising sea temperatures caused by global warming. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef experienced the worst bleaching ever recorded by scientists in 2016. Researchers at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have predicted that by 2050 more than 98% of coral reefs around the world will be afflicted by “bleaching-level thermal stress” each year. They conclude that reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, are unlikely to survive such events. Homo sapiens is not dependant on the coral reefs but their loss would be a devastating and demoralising indictment of our era, and the destructiveness of our species. “We’ll lose more species of plants and animals between 2000 and 2065 than we’ve lost in the last 65 million years,” environmentalist Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd, has pointed out. “If we don’t find answers to these problems, we’re gonna be victims of this extinction event that we’re at fault for.”
News Article | October 31, 2016
Researchers investigated the impact of Extreme Climatic Events (ECEs) on butterfly populations. The study shows that the impact can be significantly positive and negative, but questions remain as to whether the benefits outweigh the negative effects. While it is well known that changes to the mean climate can affect ecosystems, little is known about the impact of short-term extreme climatic events (ECEs) such as heatwaves, heavy rainfall or droughts. Osgur McDermott-Long, PhD student and lead author from the School of Environmental Sciences at UEA, said: "This is the first study to examine the effects of extreme climate events across all life stages of the UK butterflies from egg to adult butterfly. We wanted to identify sensitive life stages and unravel the role that life history traits play in species sensitivity to ECEs." The researchers used data from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS), a high-quality long-term dataset of UK butterfly abundances collected from over 1,800 sites across the UK, spanning 37 years, to examine the effects of weather data and extreme events (drought, extremes of rain, heat and cold) on population change. The team looked at resident species of butterflies, those which only breed once in a year, and those having more than one brood annually. Multi-brood species were found to be more vulnerable than single brood species and in general extremes of temperature rather than precipitation were found to influence changes in butterfly populations. Dr Aldina Franco, co-author said: "A novel finding of this study was that precipitation during the pupal (cocoon) life-stage was detrimental to over one quarter of the species. This study also found that extreme heat during the 'overwintering' life stage was the most detrimental extreme weather event affecting over half of UK species. This may be due to increased incidences of disease or potentially extreme hot temperatures acting as a cue for butterflies or their larvae to come out from overwintering too early and subsequently killed off by temperatures returning to colder conditions." In addition to the negative impacts, the authors found that some life stages may benefit from climatic extreme weather, with extreme heat in the adult stage causing a positive population change in over one third of the UK species. Dr Franco, added: "This is not an unexpected finding given that butterflies are warm loving creatures. Years with extreme warm summers and winters may have mixed effects. For example, this year was terrible for butterflies, although the summer was warm the number of butterflies counted during the Big Butterfly Count was particularly low. Our study indicates that this could have resulted from the detrimental effects of the warm winter, for example the recent low counts of Gatekeeper, Common Blue, Comma, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies could be explained by our results due to their negative response to warm winters which was just experienced". Mr McDermott Long said: "The study has demonstrated previously unknown sensitivities of our UK butterflies to extreme climatic events, which are becoming more frequent with climate change. Some of these effects are undoubtedly putting future populations at risk, such as extremely warm winters, however we've seen that warm and even climatically extreme hot summers may actually benefit butterflies. Further research is needed regarding the balance of the importance that these variables could have, to see if the benefits of warmer summers will be outweighed by the detrimental winter effects". Dr Tom Brereton from Butterfly Conservation and a co-author of the study, said: "If we are to mitigate against extreme events as part of conservation efforts, in particular, we need a better understanding of the habitat conditions which can lead to successful survival of adult, pupal and overwintering life stages of UK butterflies in these situations."
Fox R.,Butterfly Conservation
Insect Conservation and Diversity | Year: 2013
1.Population declines among insects are inadequately quantified, yet of vital importance to national and global biodiversity assessments and have significant implications for ecosystem services. 2.Substantial declines in abundance and distribution have been reported recently within a species-rich insect taxon, macro-moths, in Great Britain and other European countries. These declines are of concern because moths are important primary consumers and prey items for a wide range of other taxa, as well as contributing to ecosystem services such as pollination. 3.I summarise these declines and review potential drivers of change. Direct evidence for causes of moth declines is extremely limited, but correlative studies and extrapolation from closely related taxa suggest that habitat degradation (particularly because of agricultural intensification and changing silviculture) and climate change are likely to be major drivers. There is currently little evidence of negative population-level effects on moths caused by chemical or light pollution, non-native species or direct exploitation. 4.I make suggestions for future research with a focus on quantifying impacts of land management practices, light pollution and climate change on moth population dynamics and developing evidence-based measures that can be incorporated into agri-environment schemes and other policy initiatives to help reverse the widespread decline of moths in Great Britain and beyond. © 2012 The Author. Insect Conservation and Diversity © 2012 The Royal Entomological Society.
News Article | February 16, 2017
Butterflies have vanished from towns and cities more rapidly than from the countryside over the past two decades, according to a new study. Industrial agriculture has long been viewed as the scourge of butterflies and other insects but city life is worse – urban butterfly abundance fell by 69% compared to a 45% decline in rural areas over 20 years from 1995. Butterfly species such as the small copper and small heath have suffered particularly disastrous urban declines, according to the study published in the journal Ecological Indicators. Scientists at Butterfly Conservation, the University of Kent and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology found that numbers of small heath fell by 78% in urban areas compared to just 17% in the countryside, while small copper abundance fell by 75% in urban areas compared to 23% in the countryside. Prof Tom Brereton, head of monitoring at Butterfly Conservation and one of the study’s co-authors, said causes included heightened effects of climate change in cities, building on urban green space, the loss of surprisingly wildlife-rich brownfield sites, council cuts and the neglect of parks and pesticide-wielding gardeners who have also turned lawns and flower beds into driveways and patios. He said: “Urban areas are under massive pressure. People are paving over gardens for drives or patios and putting more pesticides on their gardens per area than are put on farmland. Bigger gardens are being sold off for development and councils have less resources for managing green spaces.” The study, which compares trends for 28 species in urban and countryside environments, found that most urban butterflies are emerging earlier and are longer-lived than the same species living in rural areas. On average, city butterflies emerge two days earlier than their country cousins. Urban brimstones are on the wing five days earlier than those found in rural locations. Researchers said the probable cause of the earlier emergence and longer flight periods is the urban heat island effect: human activities make towns and cities warmer than the surrounding countryside. “Warming is generally quite good for a lot of sun-loving butterfly species but some species don’t like warm winters and warm springs and these effects are more pronounced in big cities,” said Brereton. While some councils such as Gateshead and Brighton have been praised for managing verges for wildlife and wild flowers, Brereton said the trend across the country was for hard-pressed councils to cut back on their management of green space with fewer countryside rangers, and contractors “blitzing” grass at the wrong time of year and mowing over wild flowers. But with 87% of people having gardens or access to them – and gardens covering a greater area than all the UK’s national nature reserves – Brereton said gardeners also bear responsibility for recent declines. “When I was growing up in Manchester in the 1970s, no one used chemicals and everyone had a lawn and flowers and we used to see loads of greenfly as kids – you don’t really see them anymore. We need to be more tolerant of nature.” Butterfly Conservation advises gardeners to cut out weedkillers and pesticides and grow some native wild flowers, while also allowing native “weeds” such as ivy, which is a food source for the holly blue and provides vital autumnal nectar for red admirals and other insects. Dr Nigel Bourn, director of conservation science for Butterfly Conservation, said: “Improving the urban environment is something many of us can make a real contribution to, leaving bits of garden as wild areas, using less chemicals and gardening with wildlife in mind.” Bourn also called on councils to adopt “common sense” – and cheap – wildlife gardening. “More can be done locally in our parks and green spaces,” he said. “The same basic principles of wildlife gardening should be adopted across the country as a matter of common sense.”