Big Butterfly Count

Posted: Thursday 12 July 2012
by Kate Bradbury

How many butterflies have you seen in your garden this year? I’ll hazard a guess: not many.

Small tortoiseshell on buddleia flower, photo taken by Jim Asher, courtesy of Butterfly Conservation

How many butterflies have you seen in your garden this year? I’ll hazard a guess: not many. I’ve seen the odd one or two – a few brimstones and orange tips back in the dry spring, and, recently, one each of peacock, red admiral and comma, during occasional bouts of sunshine in between showers.

I’ve not seen a small tortoiseshell since last June; even cabbage whites have been scarce in my garden this year. It’s worrying, especially as we’re entering the peak time to see garden butterflies. But it’s hardly surprising – it’s barely stopped raining for two months.

I attended the launch of this year’s Big Butterfly Count on Wednesday, where Sir David Attenborough, once again, wooed his audience with childhood stories of regularly observing 50 butterflies at a time on his buddleja. “Now”, he told me, “if I see one it’s an occasion for saying, ‘golly!’”. A third of Britain’s butterflies are threatened with extinction and three quarters are declining. The future for our butterflies looks bleak.

Cold, wet summers are terrible for butterflies. They need to bask in warm sunshine to enable them to fly, and they don’t fly in the rain. Their caterpillars are also affected by wet conditions – they can be washed off plants during heavy showers, exposing them to predators.  

We can’t help the weather. But habitat loss has also played a major part in the decline of butterflies – including a 97 per cent loss of grasslands since the 1930s. “The butterflies of my youth aren’t there now”, said Attenborough.

This year, the Big Butterfly Count is more important than ever, as experts will use the data to gauge just how bad the weather has been for Britain's butterflies. All you need to do is spend 15 minutes in your garden on a sunny day between 14 July and 5 August, counting the number of butterflies you see (you can download this ID chart to help you tell the different species apart). Then simply log your sightings on the Big Butterfly Count website. It doesn't matter if you don't see any - in fact, submitting a record of no butterflies is very important.

And as well as counting butterflies, it also helps to provide food for them in your garden. "Plant single, open flowers, don’t dig up every nettle, and grow buddleja", said Sir David. You could also grow some native wildflowers. Last year, Attenborough planted a small meadow in his garden, which is now alive with ragged robin, ox-eye daisy and yarrow. "I’ve always liked a true native species as opposed to a cultivar. People like to see wildflowers". So do butterflies.

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Talkback: Big Butterfly Count
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flower 7 19/07/2012 at 17:38

beryl.I saw my first butterfly in my garden yesturday. it few under the garden table and I didnt see it again to know what kind it was, not even the colour. so, after growing some stinging nettles, budlia, two kinds,two blue and one yellow,( the blue is beautiful this year) , i did as I was told and cut them back last year,it certainly has paid back, they are lovely. But so far only ONE butterfly, I hope they return for the stinging nettles??. I think they will, when the sun shines hot for a few weeks.

oscarbgrace 19/07/2012 at 17:49

I have a garden packed to the rafters of nectar rich flowers and sadly no sight of butterflies but thankfully, more bees this year and happily nesting Mason Bees!

Gary Hobson 19/07/2012 at 17:55

I took these photos in my garden yesterday afternoon....

Gary Hobson wrote (see)

Common Blue...

Meadow Brown(?)...

There were plenty of each of those butterflies about. I'm in Warwickshire, and we've had appauling weather for the past 3 months. So the idea that butterflies have been wiped out by bad weather isn't necessaily true. I haven't seen any Peacocks, Red Admirals or Commas recently. Although I normally associate them with the time when the buddlea is in flower, and it's not out yet.

diggingdoris 19/07/2012 at 21:57

We've had so much wind and rain that I don't think the butterflies can fly around. I have 3 different buddleias and 2 types of scabious specially grown for the butterflies, but I've only seen 2 cabbage-whites and a brown unknown one, so far this year. Maybe if this weather warms up we will be luckier. Fingers crossed.

kaycurtis 19/07/2012 at 22:30

I provide for butterflies but still in decline, I have only seen 1 cabbage white, 1 Red Admiral and 1 Peacock, I will go out on a sunny day and check again.

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