Why protecting our butterflies is vital to the environment

| 13th March 2018
Butterflies were once a common sight in Britain, but they are declining year after year. What is happening to our butterfly population and why does it matter, asks CLIVE HARRIS

A staggering 76 percent of our butterflies declined in abundance and occurrence over the past 40 years - indeed some species such as the Large Blue are protected by law. 

Butterflies and moths are the barometer of our environment. They are sensitive to change and considering they have four stages of life - egg, caterpillar, pupae and finally the butterfly - it’s no wonder they are so affected. 

If you’d like more information about how to make your garden more butterfly friendly, visit Clive’s ultimate guide to butterflies

The State of the Nations Butterfly report which is published every five years shows long term and ten year trends – and it’s waving a danger flag. 

The most recent report published in 2015 indicates that overall a staggering 76 percent of our butterflies declined in abundance and occurrence over the past 40 years - indeed some species such as the Large Blue are protected by law. 

Pollinated by insects

Four species of butterfly have become extinct over the past 150 years and the rest face an uncertain future. Our moths are doing no better as the total number over the past 40 years has declined overall by 28 percent, even as low as 40 percent in southern areas.

The 56 species of UK butterfly and 2500 species of moth are under threat from habitat loss and climate change and it matters a great deal for three main reasons.

Firstly, butterflies and moths give us a meaningful glimpse into our current biodiversity and future environmental state - the government recognises them as indicators. 

They pollinate our food sources along with bees and other flying insects. Butterflies don’t have the furry bodies that bees have so they take less pollen, but they cover greater distances, strengthening the genetic variation of DNA in plants.

This makes our plants tougher and less likely to fall prey to disease. It’s thought 84 percent of EU crops are pollinated by insects – and our activities are putting them in danger. 

Open spaces

And butterflies and moths form part of the natural food chain. Birds, bats, and spiders amongst others eat caterpillars and blue tit chicks exist almost entirely upon them. Removing a step in the food chain can have unforeseen consequences on our wildlife. 

Habitat loss is one of the major problems for our butterflies. 

Farming practices have changed beyond recognition. No longer do we have wildflower meadows meant for hay which our butterflies thrived in, but intensive farming of mono-crops such as rapeseed and long grass with little diversity. 

Farming pesticides that kill insects and disease may also have an effect on our beneficial insects. Research continues into the effects of pesticides on farmland butterflies. Our own garden pesticides certainly destroy the resident butterflies in the form of eggs and caterpillars.

A staggering 76 percent of our butterflies declined in abundance and occurrence over the past 40 years - indeed some species such as the Large Blue are protected by law. 

Our woodlands, hedgerows and open spaces are fragmented and isolated, and we’re influenced by the epidemic of ‘garden improvement programs’ promoting decking and hard landscaping - where are the flowers in all this? 

There are simply fewer places for our butterflies to hibernate, breed, shelter and eat, and those that still exist are often of poor quality. 

We know habitat loss is a factor because when habitat management is put into place butterfly populations recover. The Pearl-bordered Fritillary and Heath Fritillary are two of the most threatened species to recover in sites where their habitat is purposely conserved.  

Climate Change

Shifts in climate have an almost direct effect on sensitive butterflies and moths.

On the one hand warm temperatures have allowed some species such the Peacock to extend their range into Scotland, and the Red Admiral, a migrant butterfly, has started to over-winter here, creating a native population. 

However, wetter summers and shifts in temperature are causing havoc with butterflies in general who are failing to cope with climate change.

Warmer winters disrupt hibernation, increase disease and predation. Colder springtime temperatures mean they are late to emerge leading to a shorter lifespan and less time to breed.

What Can We Do?

We can become more aware of our impact on the environment. Use less plastic, recycle, walk more instead of using the car, and support initiatives to re-green Britain. 

It’s not just butterflies that will benefit from improved environmental practices. Bees, hedgehogs, all our native creatures are having a hard time. 

The government gives subsidies to farmers to sow wild flowers in fields instead of crops, and research is looking into pesticide use, but it’s not enough –it’s like putting a sticking plaster on a broken leg.

We need our wild spaces back, untouched. Lobby your politicians. 

Think about your garden

If it’s covered in decking, plant some butterfly friendly flowers in a container, a window box or a hanging basket. Look to spread your food and shelter sources throughout the seasons, so many gardens only cater for mid-summer. 

Early spring sources of nectar include hellebores and wallflowers, then in the summer open, native flowers like buddleia, scabious, red valerian, bird’s-foot trefoil, lavender and marjoram are all good choices. In autumn you can plant sedum for late season pollinators.

Leaving a wild patch with a ground level water source is beneficial for all wildlife including butterflies. Many of our native butterflies lay eggs on nettle and ivy, so plant some nettles in a sunken container to limit their spread and watch them take a drink from a shallow saucer of pebbles.

The human take over

Butterfly enthusiasts create conservation projects to support threatened species such as the Duke of Burgundy and the Dingy Skipper both of which are on a long term decline.

Small recoveries in butterfly populations have been made thanks to them, so we know it’s possible to reverse butterfly fortunes. 

In the name of housing, feeding and making life convenient for our ever-increasing human population we’re degrading our world.

It’s important to realise this and change our habits because one day these changes will impact us too, and I can’t think they will be good. 

Butterflies - indeed all our native creatures in decline at the expense of human activity - are all worthy of a place in this world.

We must remember the planet belongs to all of us and when we alter fundamental principles that have evolved over millennia, such as the pollination of plants, we are interfering in a field we know little about.

This Author

Clive Harris is  a gardener and blogger at DIY Garden. If you’d like more information about how to make your garden more butterfly friendly, visit Clive’s ultimate guide to butterflies

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