Butterflies and biodiversity. Do something that counts

Author: Julian Champkin

A couple of weeks ago I waxed happily sarcastic about the wartime National Census of Fruit, which happened in 1944. Beginning on Saturday there is another census, which everyone in the UK can join in on and which I shall not be sarcastic about at all. It is the National Census of Butterflies.

Peacock butterfly on Buddleia bush. Image: Lewis Collard, Wikipedia

Peacock butterfly on Buddleia bush. Image: Lewis Collard, Wikipedia

It is called the Big Butterfly Count. It was launched in 2010, when 10,000 people took part and counted 210,000 butterflies and day-flying moths across the nation. (A map of what sort of butterflies they found and where is here.) The organisers hope that many more people will join this year's big butterfly count, which runs all week, from 16th-31st July 2011.

Sir David Attenborough has a buddleia bush in his garden. Twenty years ago it was covered in Red Admirals. Last year he saw just one. Butterflies have been declining catastrophically, in Britain and around the world. How fast? Obviously one needs a census to find out. But this, believe it or not, is about more than butterflies. Because butterflies are sensitive little creatures. A small change in the environment can cause a big change in the number of butterflies. And these changes happen quickly, year on year. This means that butterflies are brilliant for telling us what is happening in the countryside (or, for that matter, in the towns: town gardens can contain many more flowering species than some vast hedgeless stretches of countryside arable prairie. Ask bee-keepers: London bees do very well and London honey can be excellent.)

That sensitivity and speed make butterfly numbers significant for more than butterflies. Butterfly declines are an early warning for other wildlife losses. Technically, they are excellent indicators of biodiversity. Biodiversity is such a hugely complex phenomenon that it is almost impossible to measure - but such an important phenomenon that we desperately need ways to measure it.

The solution is to use proxy measures, such as butterflies. Farmland birds are another good indicator of biodiversity – see Significance, Sept 2006. Woodland birds, on the other hand, are not – they are just too adaptable.

But butterflies’ sensitivity and speed of reaction makes them ideal biodiversity indicators. That is why the organisers describe counting butterflies as taking the pulse of nature. The count will also help to identify trends in species that will help gauge the effects of climate change and plan ways to protect butterflies and day-flying moths from extinction. More than 20 species of day-flying moths have gone extinct in Britain in recent years.

So join the Butterfly count. Children can do it, teachers can do it, and schools can do it any and every day next week before they break up. Parents can do it, everyone can go out and do it and fill in the results on-line. Don’t trust just me. Trust the great and good Sir David Attenborough, who was talking about it on BBC Radio this morning, here. (Click on it anyway. It is always such a pleasure to hear that man’s voice.) Then sit in your garden, or on your balcony, or in your local park for fifteen minutes on Saturday or thereabouts – I hope it keeps fine for you.

And I hope – rather against hope, but still – that you spot lots of butterflies.

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  1. Image of unique ID


Dawn Baxendale

This morning we have seen

2 Peacock butterflies

1 Cabbage white butterfly

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i can't remember when and where I saw this kind of butterfly, and that now I knew it is called a peacock butterfly

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I've just finished work and came into the garden with a can of beer,nice lol I planted a mini willow tree a few weeks ago and came to water it and a peacock butterfly flew off it. I checked on my I pad to see what type it was and I got through to this site I've sat here for twenty minutes just watching and admiring it,what a beautiful site,I think I need to plant a few more things to see what else comes around 16/04/14

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Tina James

Seen 2 peacock butterflies  a few moments ago. Really nice to see especially in march.

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Carol willet

Found one of these in my shed just a minute ago still going strong put it in the poly tunnel with the raspberry bushes

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spotted this peacock butterfly today 16 Oct in Somerset. It is the first time i have seen one of these in my garden. Had plenty of cabbage whites this year but no Red Admirals.

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I have had a budlea tree in my garden for many years and this year (2013) has attracted more red butterflies than normal.. The one big surprise was the appearance of a beautiful small powder blue butterfly which only appeared once but nice to see. Very few cabbage whites seem to be interested in budlea for some reason. I live in north Birmingham

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John Watt

I have just planted a buddleia deep purple and heavy scent, I have just had my first visitor in August a 'Peacock. butterfly


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sandra mctaggart

today in my garden I must have seen more of these butterflies at one time, than I ever have in my life. I was so interested, and my little granddaughter, who is only 2yrs old enjoyed seeing them with me. I'd say there were about 12 of them on my buddleia tree. Carluke Lanarkshire.

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Had one of these coming back for the pas few day's. Farnborough (Hants) area. Gorgeous !

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