Sat, May 02, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Britain's disappearing butterflies

Saving butterflies from extinction one species at a time is an approach doomed to failure. Instead, returning butterflies are a barometer of successful ecosystem rehabilitation

By Patrick Barkham  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

With this kind of ingenuity, could we turn the whole country into a giant butterfly farm? Could we save every species by reintroducing them to tailor-made nature reserves or boosting populations with specimens from abroad?

?e might do it for a few species, but it's not the basis for a conservation strategy,?Warren said. ?hat about all the other insects? We want to get the habitats right and butterflies will tell us if we are getting it right, and then we?l be getting it right for biodiversity as a whole.?br />

Amazingly, despite all our knowledge, we still get it wrong. The pearl-bordered fritillary was known as ?he woodman? friend?because it would faithfully follow foresters around broadleaved woods as they coppiced or cut down patches of trees, attracted to the flowers that blossomed in the freshly cut glades in subsequent years. Like many butterflies, it became inextricably linked to the way we managed our landscape, but has undergone a dramatic decline in numbers since this traditional way of ?arvesting?our wood died out.

While conservation management has reintroduced coppicing ?which is rarely economically viable because of the falling demand for wood fuel and is now often carried out by volunteers on nature reserves ?pearl-bordered fritillaries have continued to die out, often because the work has not been carried out on a big enough scale. Even Monks Wood, a national nature reserve and the site of a celebrated government research station that has been the source of much of our scientific wisdom about butterflies, has lost 12 of its 40 species of butterfly since 1954, including the pearl-bordered fritillary.

The decline of butterflies is ?ot all farmers and climate change,?as Brereton puts it. Some of our rarest butterflies have been inadvertently decimated by conservation efforts. Matthew Oates, the UK National Trust's advisor on nature, takes me to the beautiful Rodborough Common in the Cotswolds, southwest England, to see the first duke of burgundy butterflies of the year. The delicate beauty of this small, fritillary-like butterfly belies its pugnacious urge to scrap with every other insect that comes near as it suns itself on the steep sides of the common.

?he Oates motto is ?ever underestimate a butterfly,? says Oates, a jovial polymath who brings his scholarly training in poetry to bear on butterfly conservation.

If climate change brings better summers, he points out that some species will become more capable of traveling across our decimated landscape to look for new sites.

?ut I am seriously worried for burgundies. The figures are very alarming. What's messed it up in the last 20 years is conservation management,?he said.

Before climate change, another man-made event, the introduction of the rabbit-killing disease myxomatosis in the 1950s, caused the decline of many grassland butterflies which relied on large rabbit populations to keep the grass short and full of flowers. Conservation plans saw a widespread reintroduction of grazing to help rare plant species and butterflies such as the adonis blue. But the duke of burgundy requires longer, rougher grassland and a certain size of cowslip plants; overgrazing has caused its population to plummet. Now it exists in such tiny colonies it could easily disappear.

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