Big Butterfly Count

by Kate Bradbury

At the launch of the Big Butterfly Count I had the privilege of meeting several experts from Butterfly Conservation, including its President, Sir David Attenborough...

Peacock butterfly, photo courtesy of Peter Eeles/Butterfly ConservationButterflies have a starring role in the July 2011 issue of Gardeners' World magazine. There's a cut-out-and-keep ID guide, a feature on plants for butterflies and another on gardening for all three stages of their lifecycle. This wealth of content was prompted by Butterfly Conservation's Big Butterfly Count.

From 16-31 July, Butterfly Conservation hopes thousands will spend just 15 minutes counting butterflies in their garden, local park, field, forest or school. This will help the charity monitor butterfly populations and identify any changes, which could indicate wider environmental problems.

I've always gardened with butterflies in mind, but so few come into my shady London plot that I've never given them much attention. After working on content for July's issue of the magazine I wanted to see more of Britain's 59 species, so researched which ones I might see on a trip I was planning, to Dorset. There, I found meadow browns and a small copper in the field we camped in. Then, walking along the cliffs around Lulworth Cove, I saw marbled whites, common blues, fritillaries (I don't know which) and the Lulworth skipper.

Butterflies have been enjoyed by enthusiasts for hundreds of years but this world was very new to me. It made me realise that, if I hadn't researched before the trip and taken my ID guide, I might have missed these beautiful butterflies. What else might we see if we looked?

Sir David Attenborough, photo taken by Julie WatsonAt the launch of the Count yesterday I had the privilege of meeting several experts from Butterfly Conservation, including its President, Sir David Attenborough. He told me about his garden, bashfully saying he doesn't do enough for butterflies, then went on to describe it: "a wild sort of garden, unkempt, not looked after" (sounds like the perfect butterfly habitat to me). Just 20 years ago he'd find red admirals, peacocks, small tortoiseshells, gatekeepers and common blues in his garden. Now, he never sees those species - just the odd cabbage white, if he's lucky.

What's happening to our butterflies is tragic, but inevitable. In London alone we are losing the equivalent of 2.5 Hyde Parks of green space each year, as landlords and homeowners pave over their gardens to build sheds, park their cars and reduce 'maintenance'. Butterflies are precious in their own right, but they're also an indicator species, meaning that whatever is happening to them is probably happeningĀ  - or will happen - to other species, including us.

"The natural world is changing extraordinarily fast", Sir David told me. "We need to be aware of changes to see what we can do about them. And we might not be able to do anything about them, but I bet you a dollar we can".

The Big Butterfly Count runs from 16-31 July. To find out how to take part, visit

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Gardeners' World Web User 14/07/2011 at 16:16

We're seeing less butterflies in our garden too, whereas we used to have loads. Yesterday I saw a holly blue, a second generation one. One of the things they feed on, apparently, is honeydew, the stuff that comes out of aphids's bottoms. It's great that nothing gets wasted in nature, isn't it!

Gardeners' World Web User 14/07/2011 at 16:45

I saw more butterflies in the Botanic garden today but only cabbage whites, none of the lovely painted ladies we usually have hordes of. There were more butterflies than usual in my garden in the early, warm, sunny spring but a dearth of anything but whites, hedge browns and tiger moths at present. It is very important as you say, Kate, to realise we too are part of the natural world and will suffer by having less food if the pollinators are not around.

Gardeners' World Web User 14/07/2011 at 17:14

I saw a Red Admiral in my little London garden today! Happy. Will look forward to the identification guide.

Gardeners' World Web User 14/07/2011 at 17:53

I saw a hummingbird hawk moth on a patch of white verbena at Nunnington Hall, Yorkshire, last Thursday, 7th July. I first saw one about three years ago in Rothbury, Northumberland and wonder if they are now found even further north?

Gardeners' World Web User 14/07/2011 at 19:25

I'm happy to say that in my garden, outside Oslo in Norway, I seem to have many more butterflies this year than previous ones! And that's NOT thanks to my gardening skills ... :-)

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