Where Have All Our Butterflies Gone?

By Dr. David Glynne Fox

This article is based on almost seventy years of personal observations in the wild, primarily in and around my home county of Nottinghamshire, although these results sadly also apply to much of the UK. Many theories have been put forward as to why many species of British butterflies and moths have declined alarmingly over the last few decades. Global warming, over-use of pesticides and pollution have all been mooted and there is indeed some truth in all of these. However, my personal viewpoint concerns, if possible, an even more serious cause, in fact two causes, both entirely related and both caused entirely by humans. The first one concerns the current human population explosion. In my own lifetime, the global human population has trebled, and it will continue in this vein if allowed to remain unchecked. The problem here of course, is that it will certainly continue to go unchecked because nobody is going to be told that they have to reduce the population by having fewer children. With the best will in the world, this is not going to happen. A reduction in the human population by at least two-thirds would be the ideal, but of course I am not for an instant suggesting genocide, just a gradual and continual reduction through a much lower birth rate. Going hand in hand with this serious problem is housing and the necessary infrastructure development. Producing more people results in ever more building development. This is a matter of fact. Most conservationists however stop shy of stating the foregoing, perhaps fearing that it will cause too much upset. I however, have never shrunk from this viewpoint and use it in many of my wildlife talks. Yes, it does upset people, and it needs to, because if people are not upset or made just a little afraid, they will ignore it and consequently do nothing about it, preferring to let others worry about the remedy. 

Every single item that we have ever possessed comes from nature, everything, from our houses and their contents to our vehicles. And we are destroying it at an unprecedented rate. “

There have been at least two recent television programmes concerning the state of our planet and the human impact upon it: one by Sir David Attenborough and one by HRH Prince William. Both of these programmes were excellent in their own right, but they both stopped short of the real causes. Sir David’s programme admittedly did briefly mention human population growth, but it was kept painfully short and basically glossed over. Here I felt was a golden opportunity lost. Most certainly, I would have brought the population explosion and building development to the fore, had I been making the programmes. The fact is, we will never control our human population expansion and thus it follows that we will never control our continuing building programmes, until it is too late and irreversible that is. Why will we never do this? The answer is simple. Most people on earth have little or no interest in wildlife and so will do nothing about it. I am also unaware of anyone in the Houses of Parliament with any clout who have any real interest in wildlife and the environment. Conservation doesn’t make money, it costs money, so it will always be on the bottom rung of the political ladder. There are many organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts etc. who are doing amazing work in trying to secure a safe future for our wildlife, and this must continue of course. But sadly, I fear that whatever we do on this front, will, in the not so long term, prove to be too little too late. I am aware that this all sounds negative and full of doom and gloom but think about it. Better still, on your travels, have a good look around you and see for yourselves all the building development going on. Look at sites of your youth that were once natural and wild and see if they are still there and pristine. I think you may be in for a shock. More and more green field sites are being put under bricks, concrete and tarmac. Houses are being squeezed in wherever possible on a monumental scale. How long can this go on for before we even build on all the fields that provide our food? It simply is not sustainable. Every single item that we have ever possessed comes from nature, everything, from our houses and their contents to our vehicles. And we are destroying it at an unprecedented rate. Go on to google and key in the world’s great cities from the air and you will see nothing but concrete and no green areas as far as the eye can see in all directions. These cities get bigger and bigger every year. Villages are swallowed up by the octopus-like tentacles of the towns, spreading forever outwards, eating up all the land like some giant vacuum. If this doesn’t convince you, go and visit a current building site which was once green belt land. You will see that the entire site is bulldozed to oblivion. Anything living thing there has to flee or be crushed to death by the giant earth moving equipment. Nothing can survive this. The land has been lost forever for the wildlife that once called this home. It can never revert to its former glory and this perhaps would not matter too much if this was an isolated case, but it is not, for it is happening everywhere, and I do mean everywhere. We are going to regret this before too long unless we take immediate action because if we don’t, nature will surely do it for us.

So, what about the butterflies, the subject of this article? When I was a young boy, I lived in Beech Avenue, just off Mapperley Plains on the outskirts of Nottingham. From the top of the avenue, one could see for miles, towards Arnold and Hucknall. I was very lucky to live here in the 1950’s because our house was the third to last in a row. Below that was meadows and woodlands as far as the eye could see. There were perhaps two or three isolated houses, but that was all. I was free to wander freely wherever I chose. I spent the long school summer holidays in these wild-flower meadows and woods and studied the birds, butterflies and wild-flowers that abounded there. I certainly learnt far more here than I ever did at school. Butterflies were all over the place here and I can vividly remember Large White (Pieris brassicae), Small White (Pieris rapae) and Green Veined White (Pieris napi) butterflies gambolling together in great clouds of twenty or more. Today, I am lucky if I see two or three of these species together. These great clouds of butterflies are most certainly a thing of the past now. All three of these species, whilst flying down our avenue would, each and every one of them, fly up and cross over a hawthorn hedge at exactly the same spot. For what reason they did this I could never discern, because there were many other virtually identical places they could have crossed over, so why choose this particular spot?

There were many wild-flower species in these meadows and one, Bird’s Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) literally covered much of the ground with its bright yellow and orange flowers. As children, we used to call it the egg and bacon plant. However, this was the foodplant of the Common Blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus). This bright cobalt blue butterfly, in the male at least, was a stunning addition to the meadows. They occurred in large numbers, flitting all over the fields like mobile sapphires and if the sun went in, they clung upside down on long grass stems. Small Copper butterflies (Lycaena phlaeas), with bright orange, black spotted forewings were just as common as the Common Blues. A rather lovely aberration with a row of blue spots near the basal orange border of the hindwings is known as (Ab. coerulea) was almost as common as the type form. Both butterflies are very scarce today.

The Wall Brown butterfly (Lasiommata megera), occurred in their hundreds, settling on the ground at my feet and then rising up again to alight again a short distance further on. I have seen but one Wall Brown during the last fifty years and this one was in the neighbouring county of Derbyshire. This species, like many others, is in national decline, as is the Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus). These lovely little beige coloured butterflies occurred in profusion all over the fields, but it is many years since I have seen this species in Nottinghamshire. Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) and Peacock butterflies (Aglais io) have all declined alarmingly due to many of the stinging nettles (Urtica dioica), their foodplant, having been destroyed through development. I remember one occasion, whilst walking through a small orchard where many fallen pears were littering the ground, I came upon a host of Red Admirals, feeding on the rotting fruit. There must have been at least seventy Red Admirals here. Like the white butterflies, this is a sight that I doubt that I will ever see again. Three or four together at the most. 

One of my favourite butterflies, the Orange Tip (Anthocaris cardamines) was common here, the larvae feeding on the seed pods of Hedge Garlic or Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolate) and can be quite difficult to detect with their two-tone green colouration. Only the adult male has the orange wing tips but both sexes have the greenish chequerboard marking on the underside of the hindwings. This is good camouflage when perched amongst the garlic flowerheads. Whenever I see the first Orange Tips of the year, I know spring has arrived at last, so for me at least, it is a real harbinger of the end of winter. One of the first butterflies of the year and also one of the last, is the beautiful bright yellow (in the male) Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni). There were a few Alder Buckthorn bushes (Frangula alnus) present, which ensured that foodplant for the larvae was always available.

And it is not just the butterflies that have disappeared. The beautiful Garden Tiger moth (Arctia caja) has also almost entirely, if not completely vanished from this area. This species was not just common back then, it was ubiquitous and occurred in many variations of wing colour pattern. Its larva, the well-known and very hairy “woolly-bear” was found feeding on a variety of wild plants that were growing in profusion. A close relative, the Buff Ermine moth (Spilarctia luteum) wasif anything, even more common than the Garden Tiger moth. I even found the melanic form known as (var. zatima), where the usual buff colouration was replaced by dark brown with only the wing veins picked out in buff. Mind you, this form was never very common. Both Narrow Bordered Five Spot Burnet moths (Zygaena lonicerae) and Six Spot Burnet Moths (Zygaena filipendulae), resplendent in iridescent green and red spots, were to be found in profusion on the pinkish-purple flower heads of the Knapweed (Centaurea nigra). 

There was a stand of pollarded poplar trees in one of the shallow valleys and these were the haunts of a number of moths, including the Puss moth (Cerura vinula) with its amazing space-age larva and the Poplar Hawk moth (Laothoe populi), a large grey moth with chestnut patches on the hind wings. Its bright green larva possessing a yellow horn at the tip of its abdomen. A number of other moth species were also associated with these poplar trees including the White Satin moth {Leucoma salicis), the famous Peppered moth (Biston betularia), famous for its role in industrial melanism, and the Red Underwing moth (Catocala nupta). On the large clumps of Rose Bay Willowherb (Chamaenerion angustifolium) which were dotted here and there across the meadows could be found the amazing dark brown larvae of the Large Elephant Hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor). The adult moth is a beautiful mixture of olive green and bright pink. Another ubiquitous species was the large geometrid moth, the Magpie (Abraxas grossulariata). This moth was so common that one became blasé about seeing them. Perhaps it was the decline in gardeners growing gooseberry and black current bushes, which the Magpie larvae fed upon, or perhaps simply habitat destruction, either way, I have not seen a Magpie moth in this vicinity for more than fifty years. Although it was so common, it was nevertheless, a very beautiful moth with large white wings covered in black spots and with two yellow bars on the forewings. It had the habit of feigning death if picked up.

There of course were a great many other species present around these woods and meadows. Large numbers of a species of bright orange red Weevil beetles (Apion frumentarium), feeding on Broad Leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius), were a very common sight. The bushes and hedgerows provided multiple nest sites for Linnets (Linaria cannabina), a small finch, which was very common here in the 1950’s. They are now a rare site in Nottinghamshire. Bullfinches (Pyrrhula pyrrhula), one of the UK’s prettiest birds, built their nests of twigs in the hedges, along with Song Thrushes (Turdus phimolelos) which are indeed a very rare site today. Two or three small ponds contained many amphibians, including Great Crested Newts (Triturus cristatus), Smooth Newts (Lissotriton vulgaris) and Great Diving beetles (Dytiscus marginalis) to mention a few. All these ponds have been filled in and houses built on top of them. If it wasn’t for garden ponds, most of our amphibians would be on the verge of extinction if not actually already extinct.

A couple of years ago, I went back to photograph this lovely site and was horrified and deeply saddened to discover that nothing was left of it. Absolutely nothing. There wasn’t so much as a blade of grass in sight. Areas of long grass were once widespread, but it seems in our tidy world of today, many of these have disappeared, along with the Ghost Moth that used to frequent these sites. Many are the times I watched the ghostly white males hovering to and fro above the long grass, waiting for a beige coloured female to turn up. It is a great many years since I have been able to watch this awesome sight. The whole area had been completely built over with houses as far as the distant horizon. I simply could not believe it. Nobody living there today could even begin to imagine what it looked like just fifty odd years ago. True, the houses had gardens attached, but virtually every garden was composed of non-native plants, which are almost useless for our butterflies and moths. Many of our television garden presenters are forever telling to plant such nectar producing plants as buddleia (Buddleia davidii) or the Ice Plant (Sedum spectabile), but these are only of use to the adult butterflies, they do not feed the larvae, so the adult butterflies are never going to remain in our gardens for very long. The trouble is most people do not relish nettles, dandelions and docks in their gardens. These are treated as weeds and are soon removed. Instead, they go to the local garden centres and fill their gardens with foreign plants, many of which are hybrids and not therefore straight natural species. Therefore, the whole of the aforementioned area is basically a desert, a wasteland, as far as our native flora and fauna is concerned. And this is just one area, the same is happening all over the country.

Another area, which fortunately, has not suffered quite the same fate, is Cotgrave Forest in the south-east corner of Nottinghamshire. Originally, when I was a boy, this area was a large area of commercially planted pines and was owned by the Forestry Commission. In my childhood, this was a good site for the Green Hairstreak butterfly (Callophrys rubi), the Pearl Bordered Fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne), the Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene) and the Dark Green Fritillary (Speyeria aglaja). However, the forest back then was managed for pine trees, not butterflies, and so the Dog Violets (Viola riviniana) that the fritillaries fed upon, eventually became shaded out as the trees grew larger, to the detriment of the butterflies. Most species disappeared but a recent trip proved something of a revelation. The land had been sold off by the Forestry Commission and individual plots came into private ownership. Today it is comprised of mostly deciduous woodland and the Green Hairstreaks and Dark Green Fritillaries have returned, albeit in small numbers. However, there appears to be some rewilding going on here. Somebody is releasing species that have never occurred here. Now, I am all for rewilding if the chosen areas are still suitable, but I do have grave reservations when new species are released that were never present. I have seen Marbled White butterflies (Melanargia galathea) here, as well as Silver Washed Fritillaries (Argynnis paphia) and Brown Hairstreaks (Thecla betulae). I have even heard that the magnificent Purple Emperor (Apatura iris) has also been released here. I understand that these releases are the work of a private individual and I can see the logic behind it, especially with the destruction of so many sites. But rewilding should be co-ordinated and creates havoc with biological recording. Otherwise, unofficial rewilding attempts can be a double-edged sword.

However, it is not all bad news. Some species in my area today were never there in my childhood. The Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) being one. This species is now found all over the county. The Hedge Brown or Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus), the Speckled Wood (Parage aegeria), the Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus), and the Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus) are now found commonly throughout the county. As global warming continues, we can no doubt expect more southern species to venture northwards, but more northern species are equally likely to perish. Additionally, most of our superb nature reserves are basically islands in a sea of houses and farmland with no corridors enabling species to move in and out of the area. And we all know how vulnerable islands can be to extinctions.

So not only do we need to protect our existing reserves, but we also need to ensure that these reserves are equipped with the necessary corridors, otherwise, given time and opportunity, existing species on reserves will eventually change and become different species from the norm.”

So not only do we need to protect our existing reserves, but we also need to ensure that these reserves are equipped with the necessary corridors, otherwise, given time and opportunity, existing species on reserves will eventually change and become different species from the norm. This means that eventually, specimens from one site will no longer be interchangeable with others on different sites that were once the same species. This perhaps wouldn’t be so bad if it was not for the fact that all of this will be man-made. Yet again!

So, to sum up the title of this article, where have all our butterflies gone? They have been literally bulldozed to almost oblivion! One thing is for sure, Maxwell Knight was not wrong when he wrote his Frightened Face Of Nature all those years ago!

All photos are © David Glynne Fox.

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