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All change for our butterflies

High brown fritillary butterfly. Photo Rob Petley JonesHigh brown fritillary butterfly. Photo Rob Petley Jones

By Mic Mayhew

There can be little in the natural world to rival the striking beauty of butterflies.

After a lull in June they emerge in late summer to grace our gardens with a rich mosaic of colours as they glide and flutter in search of nectar. Europe boasts more than 480 species of butterfly but as an island nation at the northern edge of Europe, Britain can only stake claim to 59 native species.

Cumbria forms a natural boundary where southern and northern populations of butterflies meet. From the Solway mosses in the north, across the Lakeland fells to the limestone woodlands in the south, these varied landscapes are home to an impressive 41 species. Pushed to the brink of extinction, the spectacular marsh fritillary was reintroduced to Cumbria in 2007 and now thrives in wet grassland at Finglandrigg Nature Reserve along the Solway. The slopes of Wasdale and Borrowdale form the last refuge in England for a high altitude specialist called the mountain ringlet. A handful of sites around Morecambe Bay including Arnside Knott and Whitbarrow form the stronghold for Britain’s most endangered butterfly, the high brown fritillary. Reduced to a single colony in Wales and a few on Dartmoor the Cumbrian populations of this fritillary are benefitting from traditional woodland coppicing which creates the clearings in which they thrive.

Our butterflies are experiencing mixed fortunes; climate change creates both opportunities and great challenges. Almost a quarter of our warmth-loving butterflies are spreading north to colonize new areas; the comma was first recorded in Cumbria in the early 1990s and can now be found in all corners of the county. Last year continental swallowtails crossed the channel to lay eggs in gardens along the south coast of England. This spring the first of those exotic beauties emerged from their chrysalises to establish themselves as a new species of British butterfly. Unfortunately many populations continue to decline. Despite bringing warmth, our changing climate is resulting in more extreme weather patterns; the cold spring of 2013 was followed by the wettest winter on record causing problems for many species.

So from the tortoiseshells on your buddleia to the painted ladies that migrate to our shores from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, it is all change for our butterflies. Surely there has never been a more exciting time to get involved with these stunning insects. Why not start by joining next year’s Big Butterfly Count. Launched by the charity Butterfly Conservation in 2010, it has become the world’s biggest survey of these insects and provides vital information about the state of our environment.  

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