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

Oates has another reason for saving our butterflies. Each species, in its own way, is part of the cultural identity of our landscape. Butterflies are a ?onduit into natural beauty,?he explains.

?hey take us on voyages of discovery to some of the most beautiful landscapes in this country,?Oates said.

Many of our earliest memories of summer will involve a vivid image of a butterfly. If we seek out butterflies, they can lead us into a natural world from which we are increasingly estranged by our material, technological and suburban existences.

?e underestimate the importance of beauty and wonder in our lives at our peril,?Oates said. ?s much as I love football, it? no substitute for the real thing.?br />

After a day failing to see a single small tortoiseshell in the land where thousands once roamed ?chased by the nets of obsessives such as Rothschild ?I head to a cool stone cupboard in Harrow School in north London where a fraction of the 2.25 million butterflies and moths gathered by Rothschild are stored in mahogany cabinets. This amazing collection of foreign butterflies with iridescent wings of purple, green and gold will be auctioned by Bonhams at the end of this month. Beautifully preserved, they look as if they could have been flying last week. This glittering hoard is a melancholy reminder that we are only a hundred butterfly generations from summers of plenty. In time, these dried, dead beauties may be the only butterflies we can gaze upon in wonder.

A Butterfly Year, Patrick Barkham's journey in search of British butterflies, will be published by Granta.

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