Never underestimate a butterfly

Matthew Oates is the National Trust’s Nature and Wildlife Expert. He reflects on the results of the latest Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey.

Great to have it scientifically confirmed that, as suggested in the Trust’s review of 2013’s weather and wildlife, our farmland and garden butterflies fared well last year.  The Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey, run by Butterfly Conservation in association with BTO and CEH, shows that most of our so-called ‘common’ butterflies bounced back spectacularly, after the annus horribilis of 2012.

Small Tortoiseshells and Peacocks, credit Matthew OatesSpecies like the Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell came from nowhere, flaring into abundance in a great many places during July and August.  In the fields the Common Blue and Small Copper bounced back.  The latter two, and the Small Tortoiseshell, are essentially ‘hot summer butterflies’, expanding and contracting dramatically, according to the weather.  With the two ‘Cabbage Whites’, though, it may be that the tiny parasitic flies and wasps which bestialise their caterpillars took a worse hit than their butterfly hosts during the rotten summer of 2012.  This year, the parasites may have caught up, in which case we should see fewer ‘Cabbage Whites’.

That these butterflies managed to do so well, after the deprivations of 2012 followed by a cold spring, rather beggars belief, but that’s our more catholic butterflies all over – serial escape artists, vigorously exploiting warm weather periods.  This success story shows what our butterflies are capable of, given fine weather – and the all-important ingredient, good habitat conditions. Never underestimate a butterfly.

It will be interesting to see how butterflies fare this year, after the wet, wet, wet winter.  Most interesting of all will be to see how they do in places currently under flood water.  Hopefully the Wider Countryside Survey has some plots on the Somerset Levels and in the lower Thames and Severn valleys.  Bring on the next remarkable chapter in this never-ending saga!

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