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Butterflies are surely the most beautiful of all insects, with their delicate colourful wings and charming fluttery movements. Sadly, over half of all the 56 British butterfly species are now on the endangered list. According to the charity Butterfly Conservation, this represents a 26% increase since the last assessment in 2010.
There are four species of butterflies that are now classified as extinct in Britain: the black-veined white, the large tortoiseshell, the large copper and the mazarine blue.
Dr Richard Fox, head of science at Butterfly Conservation, told the BBC: “Shockingly, half of Britain’s remaining butterfly species are listed as threatened or near threatened on the new Red List.”
He added: “Even prior to this new assessment, British butterflies were among the most threatened in Europe, and now the number of threatened species in Britain has increased by five, an increase of more than one-quarter.”
“While some species have become less threatened, and a few have even dropped off the Red List, the overall increase clearly demonstrates that the deterioration of the status of British butterflies continues apace.”
The decline in the number and diversity of butterflies is blamed on large-scale habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. While most people appreciate the enchanting sight of a butterfly on a summer’s day, the loss of these insects has far more serious consequences than their aesthetic beauty.
Butterflies help to pollinate plants and flowers as they collect nectar to feed on. They are also a part of the food chain, both as caterpillars and fully grown adults. They provide a food source for birds, spiders, reptiles, and bats, so the wider ecosystem is affected by their loss.
Butterflies are a sensitive species, so they are often the first to feel the effects of a threat to their environment. However, there are steps we can all take to help protect butterflies, especially those of us with a garden or yard, or even a balcony or terrace to put tubs and containers on.
Butterflies need nectar plants for food, and are particularly attracted to small tubular flowers such as buddleia, daisies, verbena, and lantana. They can also distinguish bright colours, so choose flowers that have a variety of vibrant hues. Avoid using pesticides or other chemicals in your garden, because butterflies are a particularly sensitive species.
Plants that flower all year round are helpful to provide access to nectar into autumn and winter. Some flowers such as pansies, winter clematis, winter honeysuckle, daphne, and cyclamen are all suited to the British winter and will also prevent your garden from looking too dreary during the cold darker months of the year.
Butterflies also need water, so if you have a garden pond, you may notice them on the surface or feeding from the marginal plants. Pond plants that are particularly attractive to butterflies include Forget-me-not, Purple loosestrife, Water mint, Marsh marigold, Flowering rush and Marsh cinquefoil.
Lady’s smock or cuckoo flower, which will grow in bog gardens, damp areas of soil, and at the edges of ponds will attract orange-tip butterflies to the pretty lilac flowers from April onwards. Also for the bog garden, the Native primrose, Hemp agrimony, Common valerian, and Ragged robin are always popular with butterflies in the nursery.
Butterflies have delicate wings and they need to seek shelter from strong winds, so plant some taller species of flowers and shrubs that provide cover.
Butterflies also seek out rocks that absorb the warmth of the sun, because they can’t regulate their own body temperature. Therefore, if you have semi-submerged rocks in your pond or around the edges, you may notice butterflies basking here during a sunny spell.
Butterflies also need plants to breed and provide a host for caterpillars. The common ‘cabbage white’ species of caterpillar favour brassica and nasturtiums to feed on, which are easy plants to grow from seed and will thrive in most conditions.
Watercress (Nasturtium aquaticum) is certainly very popular as we regularly have to delist them during the growing season due to all the caterpillars dining on them!
Devil’s bit scabious is a food plant for the caterpillars of one of Britain’s rarest and prettiest butterflies, the Marsh Fritillary. The caterpillars will lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves and as they hatch they will eat the leaves.
Caterpillars also appreciate patches of long grasses and clumps of nettles, which should establish themselves naturally in an un-mown area of your garden. Holly and ivy will attract the Holly blue butterflies, which lay their eggs on the leaves and feed from the blossom. These plants will also provide some evergreen colour for your garden.
Some species of butterflies will hibernate over the winter, including the brimstone, comma, peacock, small tortoiseshell and red admiral. They will look for log piles or dense thickets of vegetation. Meanwhile, other species overwinter as a chrysalis or caterpillar on plant stems, so leave any vegetation that has died down in place until the spring time.
Common species of butterfly to look out for in your garden
The brimstone butterfly is commonly found across England and Wales, but is scarce in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The males are a striking lemon-yellow colour, while the females are cream. The caterpillars feed on the leaves of the buckthorn and alder buckthorn, while the butterflies are attracted to purple coloured flowers.
The speckled wood butterfly has dark brown wings speckled with cream spots, and will only live for a few weeks. They are found throughout England, and the caterpillars feed on grasses, while the butterflies feed on honeydew, a secretion left by aphids (also known as greenfly).
The comma has speckled orange wings with a very distinctive scalloped edge. When their wings are closed, a silver comma shaped marking is visible on the underside. They can be spotted throughout most areas of the UK. The caterpillars will feed on nettles, while the butterflies feed from flowers and fallen fruit.
The highly recognisable red admiral is black with red stripes on the wings, and white markings towards the tips, and a red fringe on the rear wings. It favours gardens throughout the UK, where the caterpillar feeds from nettles and the adults favour flowers such as buddleia, and ivy, as well as fallen fruits.
The peacock butterfly has red wings which feature a large mutli-coloured spot that look like eyes. The caterpillars feed on clumps of nettles, while the adults will favour common garden flowers.