Butterflies are some of the UK’s best-loved insects, and watching them flit around gardens, parks and woodlands is one of the joys of sunny summer days.
But sadly, our butterflies are in trouble. Earlier this year, scientists from Butterfly Conservation (www.butterfly-conservation.org) put together a new Red List assessment, revealing a 26% increase in the number of species threatened with extinction – with 24 species threatened, and eight endangered. It makes British butterflies among the most threatened in Europe.
Climate change is having a big impact on these insects – especially those found in northerly locations, where warmer temperatures are affecting species that are adapted to cooler or damper climates.
There is hope for British butterflies though – with targeted conservation and rewilding that improves key landscapes for these iconic insects, the risk of extinction of many threatened species can be reduced.
One way we can help butterflies is to take part in the Big Butterfly Count. This nationwide survey aims to find out which butterfly species are thriving and which are struggling – and also helps to assess the health of our planet.
Butterflies react very quickly to changes in their environment. This makes them excellent biodiversity indicators, with butterfly declines being an early warning for other wildlife losses.
Because of this, the survey is an invaluable way of assessing the impacts of climate change – not just on butterflies, but on all sorts of wildlife.
First launched in 2010, Big Butterfly Count is now the world's biggest survey of butterflies. More than 107,000 citizen scientists took part in 2021, submitting 152,039 counts of butterflies and day-flying moths from across the UK.
The Big Butterfly Count runs until 7th August, and it’s easy to take part. Simply choose a spot to watch for butterflies and spend 15 minutes recording the species you see. Butterfly Conservation also wants to hear about your moth sightings, so keep a look out for these too! Then submit your sightings via the website or app.
For the best results, choose a still, sunny day and find a place where there are plenty of nectar-rich plants that attract butterflies. This could be in your garden, a local park, a field, a wood, or any other public green space where butterflies might be seen.
You can submit separate records for different dates at the same place, and for different places that you visit. And your count is useful even if you don't see any butterflies or moths.
To download a free butterfly identification chart and take part in the Big Butterfly Count, visit www.big butterflycount.butter fly-conservation.org.
What will I see?
There are around 60 different species of butterfly in the UK, and of these around 22 species are commonly seen in gardens. Here are five often-seen butterflies to look out for.
Comma. The scallop-edged wings of the comma make it easy to identify. It’s a medium-sized golden-brown butterfly with dark markings all over the wings.
Small tortoiseshell. Despite the name, this is a medium-large butterfly with very distinctive blue markings along the wing edges. It’s one of the UK’s most widespread species and is often the first to emerge in spring.
Large white. One of four common species of white butterflies that are likely to be seen in gardens. The large white has black wing tips and two spots on the undersides of the wings. Females also have two spots on the forewings. Also known as the ‘cabbage white’ because of its tendency to lay eggs on brassicas – but they love nasturtium leaves too, so plant these easy-to-grow flowers to protect your crops!
Peacock. The peacock has unmistakable eye-like markings on its wings and is one of our most beautiful and colourful butterflies. It’s a largish butterfly which can be seen in woodland clearings and other countryside areas, as well as in parks and gardens.
Painted lady. A summer visitor to the UK, sometimes causing a migration spectacle as they flock into Britain and Ireland from North Africa, central Asia and the Middle East. A medium-sized butterfly with striking orange, black and white wings.
To improve your chances of seeing lots of butterflies this summer – and to help these struggling insects – why not create a butterfly-friendly habitat in your garden or community green space?
One of the best ways to attract butterflies is to provide a food source with nectar-rich plants. Verbena bonariensis, perennial wallflowers (Bowles Mauve), scabious and hebes are good choices for a flower border. Or try some easy-to-grow herbs such as lavender, rosemary and marjoram.
Also include some plants that flower into autumn, such as sedums and Michaelmas daisies – these will give hibernating butterflies the energy boost they need to get them through the colder months.
Buddleia is also known as the ‘butterfly bush’ for good reason – butterflies (as well as bees) love it! It’s particularly good at attracting comma, small tortoiseshell, red admiral and peacock butterflies. It’s an easy-to-grow plant that’s available in different varieties with pink, red, purple, or white flowers.
Buddleia can be invasive and needs to be managed carefully to prevent it from spreading. The seeds ripen the spring after flowering, so plants should be either be dead-headed after flowering or cut back during the winter to prevent seed development – this will reduce the risk of the plant out-competing native plants in neighbouring habitats.
Butterflies like warmth, so position nectar-rich plants in sunny, sheltered spots, and choose different plants to attract different species. Try to include a range of plants to provide a continuous source of nectar through the year.
Putting away the mower and allowing an area to grow a little wilder can also help butterflies. Many butterfly and moth caterpillars eat the leaves and roots of native grasses and plants such as docks, dandelions and bedstraws.
Brimstone butterflies feed on greater knapweed and thistles, and bramble is an important food plant for speckled woods. Nettles provide food for all sorts of butterfly and moth caterpillars, including commas. Hawthorn, holly and ivy are also good plants for butterfly and moth larvae.
Finally avoid insecticides and pesticides – they are harmful to butterflies and many pollinating insects, as well as ladybirds, ground beetles and spiders.