Wildlife

Protecting Britain’s Butterflies – How To Look After Them & Help Them Flourish

butterfly on lavender
Written by Chris Lee

Butterflies are one of nature’s most enchanting creatures. They are colourful, delicate, and graceful.

But, sadly, almost all butterfly populations are currently in decline. There are various factors impacting them all at once, and they are struggling to adapt fast enough.

This guide introduces the butterflies we have in Britain, as well as the threats they are currently facing. There are also twelve ways that you can get involved in helping butterflies to flourish.

After reading you’ll have a solid understanding of the issues facing butterflies, and the motivation and knowledge to help!

What types of butterfly do we have in Britain?

There are a whopping 17,500 species of butterfly in the world, according to the Smithsonian Institute.

Largest is the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing, whose wingspan can be up to 25 cm: About the size of the average dinner plate. At the other end of the size spectrum is the Western pygmy blue, whose wingspan is about 1.25 cm. That’s about the width of your thumbnail.

Butterflies eat nectar from flowers, and use the energy it contains to fuel all of their day-to-day activities, from hibernating, to mating, to flying. The last one is no small job, either: Some butterflies fly all the way to other continents as part of their migrations!

Here are all the classifications of butterfly, into which all species fall:

  • Hesperiidae (skippers) are known and named for their quick and darting movements. They have crochet-hook like antennae clubs, and stocky bodies that make them look more similar to moths than some other butterfly types.
  • Papilionidae (swallowtails) are large and colourful butterflies with forked tails that bring to mind swallows (hence the name).
  • Pieridae (whites and yellows) are often white, yellow, and orange, with black accents. The males “exhibit gregarious mud-puddling behavior when they may imbibe salts from moist soils”. We’re not quite sure what that means, but it sounds intriguing.
  • Lycaenidae (hairstreaks, coppers, and blues) are interesting because their caterpillars have markings at their tail that looks like eyes, which confuses potential predators and gives the caterpillar more time to escape.
  • Riodinidae (metalmarks) are so named because of the metallic-looking markings found on their wings.
  • Nymphalidae (fritillaries, nymphalids, and browns) are the largest butterfly family, and often hold their wings flat when resting rather than keeping them closed together.
  • Hedylidae, who so closely resemble moths that they are often considered to require their own taxonomic family, rather than be classified with butterflies.

While there is debate about the suitability of these classifications – with Wikipedia stating on one page that “several genera might not even belong here” – they provide enough guidance for spotters to make a good guess at what they’re looking at. The question of which features and variations require different classifications is one that is always present in taxonomy (scientific categorisation of animals), but this isn’t a debate that should concern the casual spotter!

Guide to butterfly types
What can you expect to see?

In the UK we have all of the types mentioned above, except for Hedylidae. We have several types of butterfly population:

  • Residents are native species traditionally found in the UK and whose presence is consistent and expected.
  • Migratory species that visit the UK reliably and regularly. Clouded yellow, red admiral, and painted lady are some common migratory butterflies.
  • Vagrants are species not native to the UK and whose migratory habits do not usually bring them here, but who are sometimes spotted.
  • Exotics are species included in UK population lists, but which aren’t thought to occur or have occurred naturally in the wild.

Within these categories, there are two types:

  • Habitat specialist butterflies rely heavily on specific habitats, and are quickly susceptible to decline if their homes are disturbed or destroyed.
  • Wider countryside types are less dependent on individual habitats, and can make themselves comfortable in a wider range of settings. They are less prone to decline through habitat destruction, but they are still at risk.

There are about 60 types of butterfly in the UK, which is too many to list here. You can find butterfly identification guides online, or they can be bought quite cheaply (here is a fine example). Here are some common types to keep a lookout for:

  • The Duke of Burgundy, a name whose origins are unknown, and a butterfly that, according to Countryfile, breeds “in shady situations” and “squabbles like mad”.
  • The Pearl-bordered fritillary, a butterfly who enjoys the nectar of the bugle flower, and who lives mainly in woodland clearings.
  • The large blue, a species who went extinct in the UK in 1979, but that was successfully reintroduced from Swedish populations.
  • The swallowtail, a large and colourful butterfly with tropical-looking markings. They enjoy hot weather.
  • The white admiral, a butterfly that thrives on woodland bramble flowers. They are named for their distinctive white band markings.
  • The high brown fritillary, a large and orange butterfly that is, sadly, also declining most quickly.
  • The purple emperor, whose markings make it one of the most impressive butterflies we have. This type of butterfly does not visit flowers, instead taking their moisture from “unsavoury substances” (on whose nature no more information is given).
  • The mountain ringlet, which is the only mountain butterfly in the UK. They get blown about by the wind but they don’t seem to mind.
  • The Adonis blue, a special butterfly whose distinct blue markings are particularly striking.
  • The brown hairstreak, who live high up in ash trees and are difficult to see as a result.
An adonis blue butterfly with its particularly striking markings
An adonis blue butterfly with its particularly striking markings

What is the difference between butterflies and moths?

Moths and butterflies are similar in a lot of ways, but their separate categorisation makes sense. Here are some of the differences between them:

  • Butterflies are usually larger and more colourful, where moths coloration is more subdued.
  • Moths have a ‘frenulum’, which joins their top and bottom wings together during flight. Butterflies do not have this.
  • Butterflies are primarily active in the daytime; moths in the nighttime. There are butterflies and moths that buck these trends, but for the most part they are accurate.
  • Moths make cocoons, which are wrapped in silk coverings; butterflies make chrysalises, which are hard.
A fox moth

We’ve not included moths in this guide: Not because we don’t think they should be protected, but because it would be enormous! Keep your eyes peeled for moth-related content in the future.

Why do we need butterflies?

They’re beautiful, and this has been proven to positively impact humans; just being near butterflies is enough to lift our moods. They are pervasive in our culture, too. They are associated with metamorphosis, and with changing form to something beautiful and proud: Imagery which is seen frequently in various art forms.

According to the Butterfly Conservation report mentioned previously,“many people believe that butterflies have an intrinsic value, a right to exist that is not dependent on their value to other species (including humans), and that we have a moral or religious responsibility to prevent their extinction.” Especially when their peril is caused (or made worse) by human activity.

As with bees, butterfly populations are seen as a bellwether to gauge the wider condition of the environment. They are the best-studied insect in the UK, and their attractive and non-threatening appearance gives them a widespread public appeal.

Their ability to respond quickly to environmental change is especially helpful, because their responses are often indicative of how other species will respond. Because of this, butterfly population trends are used as Government biodiversity indicators, and contribute to the development and assessment of government policy.

Butterflies are also pollinators, and have a large role to play in the pollination of flowers and crops. In our content piece about protecting British bees we go into more detail about what pollination is and why it is important.

In short, natural pollinators (water, wind, birds, and insects including butterflies and bees) are responsible for at least a third of human food production. Without them, the fruits and vegetables we eat would be much harder to grow, and more expensive as a result. Foods we grow to feed to animals used in farming (for meat and milk) would suffer the same fate.

Protecting pollinators and allowing them to flourish is vital if we want to enjoy the same food choices we do today.

What are the risks to British butterflies?

Butterflies are one of the most quickly declining populations in the natural world, according to a report published in the prestigious journal Science.

There are seven levels of threat for animals. The definitions below are taken from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List Guidelines:

  • Extinct: “The last individual has died”; they are all gone.
  • Extinct in the wild: “It is known only to survive in cultivation, in captivity, or as a naturalized population”.
  • Critically endangered: “Facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild”.
  • Endangered: Faces a “very high” risk.
  • Vulnerable: Faces a “high” risk.
  • Near threatened: “Is close to qualifying for or is likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future”.
  • Least concern: “Widespread and abundant”.

Of the ten butterflies we introduced earlier:

  • Two are critically endangered.
  • Two are endangered.
  • Two are vulnerable.
  • Four are near threatened.
  • Zero are in the least concern category. This means that every type is under some level of threat. None are widespread and abundant.

This is according to the Butterfly Conservation red list.

Another report – the State of the Nation published by the Butterfly Conservation charity – draws on several professional datasets, to give “a comprehensive and statistically robust evidence-base” on which to make assessments. They have found similarly distressing statistics about the decline of the majority of UK butterfly populations. Some of the datasets they use:

  • The UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS)
  • The Butterflies for the New Millennium (BNM) recording scheme
  • Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey
  • Big Butterfly Count

What is causing this decline?

Falling numbers

Amongst British butterflies there has been a 70% decline in occurrence and a 57% decline in abundance since 1976 (source). This means butterflies are found much less frequently than they used to be, and when they are found, they are present in lower numbers. The occurrence and abundance of some butterflies increased in the same period: 47% of species increased in one or both measures.

Some species have seen incredibly drastic drops in numbers: The instantly recognisable Monarch butterfly saw a 97% decline in populations since the 1980s (source).

A butterfly colony
Where you used to get thriving colonies of monarchs living on trees, now you get a few stragglers.

Destruction of habitats

Intensive agriculture practices and increased demand for land for housing, roads, and other human activities means that natural habitats are at risk. There is very little resistance when places like peat bogs and downland – which aren’t inherently interesting to most humans – are used for development.

Changes in woodland management styles are thought to be responsible for declines in other butterfly populations. When decisions are made that prioritise certain uses for woodland, animal populations suffer.

These two issues are particularly damaging for habitat specialist butterflies, because when their habitats are disrupted or destroyed, they don’t really have anywhere else to go.

Wider countryside types are declining too, and this decline is less easily attributed to specific causes. When you consider that 97% of wildflower meadows have been destroyed since the 1940s (source), it’s not so hard to see why butterflies – even those that can adapt to new habitats – are struggling to readjust.

Climate change

The spectre present on almost every conservationist’s radar rears its head when talking about butterflies, too.

Some species adapt to climate change, with warmer summers attributed to increasing populations of some butterfly types. Others, however, see their migration patterns and habits disrupted by changing temperatures.

Climate change also disrupts the times of year when flowers bloom, which can have knock-on effects for butterflies that fly when their preferred plants are in season (like the pearl-bordered fritillary, who we met earlier, that favours bugle plants).

Essentially, unpredictable climate with larger variations in temperature presents various ongoing threats to butterfly populations

What can be done?

There are glimmers of hope, and these are what we must hold on to. There is widespread – and increasing – awareness of the issue, with several organisations leading the charge. Some populations have bounced back after conservation efforts were implemented.

Things are moving – and can continue to move – in the right direction. Here are 12 steps you can take to help that happen

1. Don’t despair

The constant barrage of things to be concerned about can be daunting: Butterflies are in decline, bees are too, there’s too much plastic in our oceans, temperatures are rising, no prominent politicians seem to care, and so on…

But it is vital to hold onto the fact that things are changing. People are becoming more aware, and are demanding action as a result. The next generation have already demanded action from governments and grown-ups. By redirecting panic and despair into constructive action – however small – contributes to the solution rather than wallowing in the problem.

It is important to bear this quote in mind, from the Butterfly Conservation charity: “The declines of several threatened species appear to have been halted, and a range of […] species have become more abundant and widespread.”

2. Make your garden butterfly-friendly

Butterflies will stop off at any garden where they can get a supply of tasty nectar, and gardens are especially important pit-stops between habitats and other green areas.

By planting the right plants you can attract butterflies and other pollinators to your garden where they can recharge, hang out, and maybe even breed. Here are some pointers for making your garden butterfly-friendly, taken in part from a guide by Butterfly Conservation:

  • Plant nectar plants in sunny, sheltered spots. Butterflies like warmth!
  • Plant a variety of flowers to appeal to a wider selection of butterflies. You’ve got a big list to choose from, including names like balkan clary, cosmos, French marigold, gayfeather, giant hyssop, calendula, lambs ears, catmint, coneflower, dahlia, shasta daisy, wild marjoram, and many more.
  • Choose plants that flower throughout the year, to attract butterflies in all seasons.
  • Plant nasturtiums near brassicas if you grow vegetables: This will lure caterpillars away from your crops, and give them somewhere safe to grow.
  • Choose other plants that caterpillars like, to give them extra protection.  Honeysuckle, jasmine, hop, and clematis are popular contenders.
  • Plant stinging nettles to attract certain butterfly types, and plant them in sunken containers to prevent them spreading across your entire garden.
  • Use organic compost and keep plants watered, so that they thrive for as long as possible. (Avoid peat compost: This is taken from ecosystems where butterflies are in decline, and which should be left alone!)

More information can be found in the Gardening for Butterflies leaflet, which has some fantastic ideas. Wildflower also offer a specially selected seed selection for attracting pollinators.

3. Create “nectar bars” for passing pollinators

You don’t have to have a garden to be able to help butterflies and other pollinators. A window box will do (or a balcony, roof terrace, front porch, or similar).

Putting a nectar bar somewhere on your property is the butterfly equivalent of having a service station on a motorway: It gives them the opportunity to rest and refuel on their journey to somewhere more suited to their needs.

All you need to do is to set up a window box or similar sized flowerbed, choose the right flowers, and plant them in the right configuration. Here are some pointers:

  • Plant low-growing plants at the front. This includes things like scabious, cranesbill, and thyme.
  • Plant medium height plants in the middle. Lavender, phlox, and wallflower are ideal candidates.
  • Larger plants should go at the back. Hebe, sunflower, and purpletop will do the trick.

This configuration will make it as easy as possible for passing butterflies to identify flowers they like, and will increase the likelihood of them visiting. You can use those guidelines when building butterfly-friendly flowerbeds in your garden, too.

4. Tell your neighbours!

Helping butterflies and other insects to get between areas with no plants, pollen, or nectar is important in helping them to flourish. If your nectar bar is one of many on your street, butterflies will have more places to stop and refuel on their journeys.

A butterfly feeding on some tasty nectar
A butterfly feeding on some tasty nectar

This has the combined benefit of making your street more attractive and colourful, and sparking conversation amongst your neighbours.

5. Record the butterflies that visit

Identifying the butterflies that come to your garden and recording their visit is a great way to contribute to the data being collected about their populations which, as we’ve seen, is used to plan and inform all sorts of conservation efforts.

There is an app for identifying butterflies called iRecord, and you can download it for free through Google or Apple. iRecord automatically submits sighting information once you have confirmed one, and attaches your location via GPS to make your contribution as useful as possible.

6. Volunteer for butterfly counts

According to the State of the Union butterfly report, tens of thousands of volunteers across 2,000 locations have contributed almost 3 million butterfly distribution records (as of 2015).

This data is vital in understanding changing butterfly populations, and volunteers are always required. As we said earlier, butterfly habits and numbers are an early indicator of how other animals will respond to changing conditions, so a clear idea of their numbers is super important.

On counts, you’ll either be counting butterflies, egg numbers, or larval nests in an area.

You’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for chrysalises

7. Teach people about butterflies

This may sound simple, but a lot of people aren’t aware of the enormous variety of butterfly we have in the UK, or the role they play.

Show kids butterflies, caterpillars, and chrysalises. Try to demonstrate the wonder of seeing the transformation between the stages of life. Part of the problem that leads to declining animal populations is a disconnect between humans and nature, which leads to disinterest (also called the Nature Deficit).

Some weird butterfly facts that are sure to pique the interest of even the most stubbornly anti-nature child (or adult!):

  • They transform from caterpillars to butterflies: Two creatures that look completely different.
  • During their transformation, they turn completely into goo and reassemble themselves from scratch.
  • The ‘powder’ on butterflies’ wings is actually tiny scales, which are made from waste products of their bodily processes. These scales regenerate over time.
  • They taste through their feet!

Tapping into this is important for the success of future conservation efforts.

8. Rear caterpillars

The best way to convey the wonder of butterflies’ transformation is to see it in real time. By rearing caterpillars in your home, you can do just that.

Munching Caterpillars have created a guide to rearing caterpillars, and it gives step-by-step instructions to properly house and feed them. All you need is a plastic pot with a mesh lid, some peat-free compost, and a cool, dark place to keep their temporary home.

When your caterpillars have fed they will turn into a chrysalis, and after a while they will hatch into butterflies.

A butterfly hatching
A butterfly hatching

9. Support landscape-scale conservation projects

Such projects, managed by organisations like Butterfly Conservation, are vital to countering declining butterfly numbers. Sites must be chosen and managed carefully by a project manager with experience and an understanding of the situation. The entire process is informed by data, partly provided by butterfly counts and similar.

Deliberate and well-managed conservation projects have helped species like Duke of Burgundy, pearl-bordered fritillary and dingy skipper to see their numbers bounce back.

10. Support reintroductions

The large blue butterfly went extinct in the UK, but was successfully reintroduced from a Scandinavian population. They are now considered critically endangered, but make a strong case for the reintroduction of animal populations.

11. Support the implementation of government policy

Individual action is great, but for butterflies to truly be protected, the government must implement environmental policies that prioritise their wellbeing.

Butterfly Conservation identify several policy points that they feel must be implemented for meaningful change to occur:

  1. Maintain and restore high quality, resilient habitats through landscape-scale projects.
  2. Restore the species-focussed approach that has proved effective in reversing the decline of threatened species. While an integrated ‘ecosystem services’ view of biodiversity is important, it alone will not save threatened butterflies.
  3. Enhance funding for agri-environment and woodland management schemes targeted at species and habitats of conservation priority.
  4. Restore the wider landscape for biodiversity in both rural and urban areas, to strengthen ecosystems and benefit the economy and human welfare.
  5. Encourage public engagement through citizen science schemes such as the BNM, UKBMS and Big Butterfly Count.
  6. Increase the use (and monitoring) of landscape-scale projects for threatened wildlife and ensure that funding mechanisms are in place to support them (e.g. landfill tax credits)

Supporting organisations with such efforts lends your voice to the cause, and financial contributions give them the power to work harder.

12. Donate to charities and organisations supporting butterflies

If you want to donate financially, here are a few ways to do it:

This is a challenge without an easy solution, and it won’t be easy to reverse the damage already done, but all of the steps above will help. Spreading the word will help. Raising awareness, planting plants, donating money, and sharing the wonder of butterflies will all help.

We can do this!

About the author

Chris Lee

Chris is interested in nature and the good things that happen when people are in it. He is a freelance writer, with writing published about cycling, green living, and ways to make a difference without fundamentally restructuring your lifestyle.

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