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

?he track record of conservation management on this butterfly is bloody awful,?Oates said. ? really think we could lose it.?br />

We are belatedly getting better at conserving the right kind of land for fragile, complex and, frankly, contrary butterfly species. Butterfly Conservation had one conservation adviser a decade ago; today, 30 advisers help landowners manage 1,000 precious sites. Once the bete noire of conservationists, the Common Agricultural Policy now offers some funding ?although not enough ?to encourage farmers to manage their land for conservation.

?t's by no means all doom and gloom but getting enough done in enough areas is the problem,?Warren said.

New demand for eco-friendly wood fuel from the sustainable harvesting of broadleaved woods would help too, recreating our traditional woodland system in which flowers and butterflies could thrive.

Climate change, however, makes it all much more complicated. As well as new predators, new diseases may destroy native trees, flowers and insects that butterflies depend on. Invasive weeds could crowd out butterfly food plants. Grass and bracken ?with which many rare fritillaries have a delicate relationship ?are already growing back more vigorously than in the past. Tangled woodland will need clearing more regularly.

? lot of conservation management won? necessarily work in the future,?Brereton said. ?ith climate change, species are changing their habitats and their requirements are changing as well. It can be fatal to manage for what a butterfly needed 20 years ago. We need to keep on the ball with understanding what species need because their requirements are changing as the earth warms up.?br />

Just as I kept my passion for butterflies hidden for fear of ridicule at school, so the butterfly hunters of old were often derided for such a whimsical, frivolous pursuit. Butterflies may be pretty but they seem inconsequential ornaments when compared with majestic eagles or pragmatically functional insects such as worms or bees. Every century, butterflies have become extinct in Britain. Why should we care if we lose a few more?

For a start, butterflies are an excellent indicator species: if butterflies are suffering then so too are thousands of less well monitored insects. (Thanks to the scientists who set up butterfly monitoring in the 1970s and the 1,500 volunteer butterfly recorders who count numbers every summer, we have excellent data showing their decline.) It is insects that pollinate many flowers, help matter decompose and protect other species by preying on pests. Plants, birds, rodents and big, greedy mammals ?such as human beings ?depend on them.

?here is a good moral case for conservation but there is a pretty good selfish, economic case as well,?Warren said. ?ith the economic downturn, people think saving butterflies is pretty low down on our list of priorities, but human beings and the natural world are linked very closely. If the natural world goes to pot, sooner or later we will go to pot. Butterflies?decline probably indicates a rapid decline in invertebrates in general. If the British situation is true across the world, we are heading for a sixth great extinction event. There have been five in the history of the planet and this one will be man-made.?br />

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