Posted 16th Jun 2017
Who doesn’t love the sight, on a warm lazy summer’s day, of butterflies meandering around the garden?
These beautiful little creatures are in serious decline throughout the UK, both in the countryside and our gardens, with some facing extinction in the next few years. The reasons for this decline are various, with the countryside losing specific habitats such as ponds, field margins and hedgerows. Set-aside, which was a European Union payment to arable farmers to leave field margins and small parcels of land to return to the wild, was abolished in 2008 and ever since these valuable habitats have been abolished and their huge environmental benefits lost. The continued heavy use of pesticides and herbicides are also a major contributing factor to this rural decline, along with the mono-culture of food crops and lack of traditional woodland management practices, such as coppicing.
However the largest decline in butterfly populations by far is in urban areas, with the Small Heath down by 78% compared to a rural decline of 17% and the Small Copper falling by 75% in the town and 23% in the countryside. Other species are experiencing similar declines, mainly due to the need to house and provide an infrastructure for an increasing urban population. Lack of parking is resulting in front gardens and lawns being paved over, large gardens are proving extra building space, brown field sites which are usually full of nectar rich ‘weeds’ are being developed and gardeners are increasingly turning to pesticides to solve problems. Council administered spaces are also suffering from lack of funding, resulting in allotments being built upon, parks and green spaces being poorly maintained and wildflower-rich roadside verges being cut too soon and removing a valuable urban nectar source.
Climate change is also invariably playing a part in hastening this decline as a lot of species cannot survive through a mild, wet winter. The change in weather patterns is not all doom and gloom as a lot of butterflies from the south of the country are migrating northwards and several, normally restricted to warmer areas of the continent, are making their way into southern England. The European Swallowtail and Long-tailed Blue, once scarcely seen, are being spotted more and more frequently in the south of the country.
Although we are limited as to what we can do to help the decline in countryside species, apart from buying local and organic, there are plenty of measures we can take to help the urban species. If you have paved or concreted over your front garden you could remove the majority of it to leave just the tracks for the car wheels; plant the areas which would be underneath the car with low-growing, nectar-rich, maintenance-free varieties of thyme. Replacing the concrete with plants also has the added benefit of reducing run-off which in turn helps prevent localised flooding.
If possible leave a patch of garden to go ‘wild’; this does not necessarily mean having a huge patch of nettles, although they are an important food source for Comma, Red Admiral, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars. There are masses of wild flowers which not only look beautiful but will also greatly help the butterflies. Covering an unsightly wall or fence with common Ivy will provide a food source for the Holly Blue and an autumn feed for the Red Admiral. Brambles will provide food for a staggering 22 species of butterfly as well as delicious blackberry and apple crumble in autumn.
Try and provide a succession of flowers throughout the season from early spring, when they come out of hibernation, to late autumn, when they need to stock up their reserves to see them through the winter. Spring flowers can include English Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scriptus), Primrose (Primula vulgaris) and Cowslip (Primula veris) then end the year with gorgeous blue Devil’s-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis), Hawkweed (Hieracium spp.) or Knapweed (Centaurea spp.).
One of the best shrubs by a mile is the Butterfly Bush (Buddleia spp.) as it provides nectar for 18 species of butterfly. It grows quite quickly and can become a really large shrub so must be cut down quite hard in spring in order to keep it under control. Rotting fruit can be an invaluable source of autumn food for a variety of butterflies so don’t be too tidy, leave a few lying on the ground. Plant nectar-rich single varieties of annuals and perennials in a sheltered sunny position as butterflies need a warm spot to feed out of the wind. Improve the efficiency of your perennials by keeping them dead-headed, which prolongs the flowering period, and making sure they are well watered as this makes a lot of difference to the amount of nectar produced.
Some species have responded well to conservation efforts so anything, however insignificant you think it may be, will make a difference and if enough of us do just a little bit we may be able to halt this catastrophic decline. Even if you don’t have a garden you can still contribute by planting up a window-box or some decorative containers.
Guide courtesy of Angela Slater at Hayes Garden World