From: Faye Dobson, The Ecologist, More from this Affiliate
Published September 25, 2012 08:45 AM

Butterflies act as wildlife indicators, warning us of ecosystem changes

Although butterflies may seem like an attractive addition to your flower garden they are a more important insect than most people realize. Acting as a vital wildlife indicator, butterflies can tell us almost everything we need to know about the health of an ecosystem. But from the Meadow Brown to the Swallowtail, British native butterfly species are slowly disappearing.

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According to a report by the Dorset-based charity Butterfly Conservation, 72 per cent of butterfly and moth species have declined in the last ten years, and 54 per cent have decreased in the UK. Even the abundance of common garden butterflies, such as the Red Admiral, has dropped by 24 per cent.

Butterflies react extremely quickly to even minor changes in the environment, making them both a good indicator of biodiversity and providing an early warning system for other reductions in wildlife. As a result, they are now the best-monitored group of insects in the world.

A decline in butterflies would also have a knock-on effect on other British species, in particular birds such as blue tits, jays and sparrows.

Stephen Dickie, head keeper explains: "Birds plan their whole breeding season around when caterpillars will be most abundant. If the butterfly and caterpillar numbers are depleted then there's not going to be a lot of food for developing chicks."

Plants will also be affected. Butterflies are a major pollinator of both wild and cultivated plants. Without them and other important pollinating insects flying around, there will be a significant decline in viable seed produced.

So what hope is there for the declining populations of British butterflies?

Many species from Europe migrate to Britain over the summer, but this year, because of the wet weather, they have not migrated. With some warm weather this trend would reverse and the European butterflies will come across and join the remaining native species. "We only need a short spell of sun. Butterflies are egg machines and they don’t need a lot of hot weather to get the population back up," says Stephen Threlkeld.

The good news is that there are a number of ways we can all help encourage more butterflies into our gardens to lay their eggs.

Butterflies prefer open spaces that are sunny but sheltered, as it would be in a woodland glade, so the idea is to recreate this environment in your garden. Large trees and shrubs are good to provide shelter, as well as plenty of vegetation, reduced use of pesticides and some good sources of nectar.  Food plants for caterpillars are also essential, including holly, ivy and buckthorn.

Leaving an area of long grass will encourage species such as Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Gatekeeper and Large Skipper, as well as giving caterpillars and pupae somewhere to hide along with other creatures such as beetles and spiders.

Read more at The Ecologist.

Swallowtail butterfly image via Shutterstock. 

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