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Wild Things: A worrying lack of butterflies

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Going on wildlife walks can leave you with lasting impressions of the species seen. Sometimes, though, you are left worrying about the species you HAVEN’T seen.

For example I can’t help being concerned about butterflies absent so far this year on plenty of walks and rambles checking all their usual haunts.

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The first butterfly I saw in 2023 didn’t appear until April 4 when a small white fluttered through the garden. My detailed butterfly records only go back six years but they tell me this is the latest first of the year sighting I have recorded. By the same date last year I had observed five different species.

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They didn’t exactly appear in a rush after that either. Large white, green-veined white, peacock, red admiral, speckled wood and holly blue were also sighted over the next three weeks but the latter was the only species I spotted more than once. It’s often in my garden.

Into May and the situation showed little improvement. Brimstone, orange tip and red admiral appeared which seemed encouraging but these were species I’d expect to see much earlier in a year. Just nine species in nearly five months! At the same point in 2022 my list had reached 14 with many of those butterflies seen more than once.

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This Is Local London: A holly blue Picture: Donna ZimmerA holly blue Picture: Donna Zimmer

Was it just me? I began to check with other butterfly observers who all assured me they had noticed a shortage this year. Jim Butler, who contributes pictures to accompany this column, told me he had also recorded a latest “first date” sighting and precious little since. His total reached just seven by the second week of May.

What’s going on? Where are all the butterflies?

Of course it has been a miserable spring. Those cloudy, cool, windy, showery days hardly encourage butterflies. Maybe by the time you read this things will have changed and a multitude of butterflies will be flying in bright sunshine.

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But could there be another reason for the shortage up to mid-May? On one Kent walk I bumped into a four-strong volunteer party conducting butterfly surveys on behalf of English Nature. Their leader agreed there were far fewer butterflies around than usual and came up with an interesting theory. He believed it was because last summer’s sweltering temperatures caused many plants to whither and die for lack of water. He believed caterpillars relying on these plants for food died of starvation and butterflies could not locate enough nectar. Therefore there were fewer butterflies around. He couldn’t be too optimistic that the butterfly population would flourish at all this summer but hoped matters would improve when plants recovered totally next year. Providing there are no more heatwaves.

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Let us hope things soon return to normal for the wildlife world is an infinitely poorer place without these multi-coloured, fragile gems.

Further reading: Pocket Guide to Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland by Richard Lewington (British Wildlife Publishing)

Britain’s Butterflies by David Newland, Robert Still, Andy Swash and David Tomlinson (Princeton WildGuides)

Butterflies of Britain and Ireland by Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington (British Wildlife Publishing)

Discover Butterflies in Britain by DE Newland (Princeton WildGuides)

Collins Butterfly Guide by Tom Tolman and Richard Lewington(HarperCollins)

Guide to the Butterflies of Britain by Richard Lewington and John Bebbington (Field Studies Council) is a handy laminated fold-up guide ideal for children and beginners to use in the field.

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