The results of the Big Butterfly Count 2017 were published this week. The count, which is run by Butterfly Conservation, takes place annually and helps to map out how different species are doing. Every year the public are invited to count, record and submit sightings of different butterflies they see over a 15 minute period during July and August. This form of recording is quite common place now; the RSPB do it with garden birds annually and the Wildlife Trusts have ongoing recording sites for people to upload sightings as and when. Despite the fact that it isn’t strictly scientific, the results are often a good overview of the situation, revealing trends across the UK, meaning further more in-depth investigations can be carried out.
This year was a record breaker, with over 60,400 participants submitting records, making it the most successful yet! The results were mixed. The large, small and green-veined white all suffered a decline in populations. In fact, looking at the list, it seems a majority of species have a minus symbol next to them.
Not all the results were bad; some species had a roaring year. As you can see, the comma increased by 90%, the common blue by 109% and the small copper racked up 62% respectively.
But the one result which really struck me was the red admiral. According to the survey, the species increased by 75% on 2016 and was three times higher than 2015, showing successes in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It resonated with me because of the amount I have seen this year. My neighbour’s buddleia, which encroaches on my garden, seemed to be a constant hive of activity; I counted over 20 red admirals on this one tree at a time during those warmer months. The bold orange of their wings contrasting against the bright purple flowers, their movement creating a sienna hue as they rapidly reveal their burnt underwings.
Since then, sightings of them have been regular; Thursday I counted 5 at Degibna and Mullion, then there was one Friday and one again yesterday…the imagos are often seen till around the end of October, so their presence isn’t exactly unexpected, but I am struck at how many I have sighted this year. I originally thought it was because the buddleia hadn’t been established last year, or maybe I simply hadn’t noticed it, however potentially it is part of the growing population across the country.
Red admirals (Vanessa atlanta), once called the red admirable, are one of the reasons why stinging nettles are so vital; the female will lay one single egg on the tip of a nettle leaf. The egg hatches within a week, spin a tent around themselves, fastened to a young leaf. After 4 weeks, they pupate before emerging as the beautiful adult we know and love.
Their story is somewhat of a sad one though. As a late butterfly, they are able to handle the slightly cooler weather and are active on winter sunny days. They are able to hibernate and many will choose to do so, selecting a tree trunk or underneath a branch to do so. But unfortunately, many won’t make it, unable to survive harsh winters and only pulling through when the weather is more temperate. Of course, here in Cornwall, we don’t tend to get those major drops in temperature, and I would be curious to see what differences there are in the county in comparison to the rest of the UK.
I have realised over the last few months that seeing the butterfly has become a regularity and something that I would love to continue. So today, I purchased a packet of nettle seeds and some extra bird feeders. These will not be for the birds though. Instead I will pop in some rotting fruit and hang them; an extra autumn boost for the butterfly which I am praying has a long sleep and a safe winter.