Butterfly blues

Long-tailed blue butterfly minus its tail © Matthew Oates

Long-tailed blue butterfly minus its tail

Our specialist on nature and wildlife, Matthew Oates, tells us how our butterflies are bouncing back.

2012 was officially the worst year on record for butterflies. Then 2013 began with the coldest and latest spring for 50 years. But butterflies are renowned fighters and given a decent spell of good weather can bounce back. July and August were great, enabling many of our butterflies to recover quite spectacularly, most notably garden species like the peacock, small tortoiseshell and the two cabbage whites. Trust gardens were full of them and we saw many visiting clouded yellows, too.

Just visiting?

Best of all, one of the rarest occasional migrants, the long-tailed blue, made a miraculous appearance and established colonies in the extreme South East. At least three colonies were discovered on our land in Kent and East Sussex, notably at Kingsdown Leas on the White Cliffs near Dover. Enthusiasts travelled from far and wide to see them. This exquisite butterfly may appear here more regularly, perhaps even become a virtual resident, if climate change delivers milder winters and prolonged spells of hot summer weather.

Local success stories

Even though some of our rarer resident butterflies have had a lean time of it lately, probably because of poor weather, the National Trust has worked in partnership with Butterfly Conservation on many conservation projects. As well as working with its members who have provided practical assistance, the organisation has provided advice and helped find grant aid.

The high brown fritillary, Britain’s most rapidly declining butterfly, is bucking the trend and thriving in Heddon Valley. This is through conservation work that’s been supported by Butterfly Conservation and an enthusiastic annual Working Holiday group. These Trust supporters share our passion and connect with our conservation work by carrying out valuable habitat management. On the other hand, the high brown fritillary struggles in the North West, despite our positive conservation effort. Again, poor weather may be largely to blame.

Elsewhere, we have reversed the fortunes of the rare heath fritillary on Exmoor’s Holnicote Estate, with fantastic scientific support from Butterfly Conservation, and successfully reintroduced the fast-dwindling Duke of Burgundy to Bradenham Valley on the Hughenden Estate. Collard Hill goes from strength to strength as a large blue open access site. This is one of our butterfly gems where we encourage people to come and discover these fabulous, fragile creatures for themselves.

What’s ahead?

We plan to continue working with organisations and the public to help us support the development of larger, more intact wildlife-rich landscapes through which butterflies can move and colonise freely. Yes, sunshine helps massively, but habitat quality and quantity remain the essentials.

2013 Winners

Chalkhill blue
Clouded yellow
Dark-green fritillary
Large white
Long-tailed blue
Peacock
Purple emperor
Small white
Small tortoiseshell
Wall brown

2013 Losers

Most spring butterflies
Essex skipper
Glanville fritillary
High brown fritillary
Holly blue
Pearl-bordered fritillary
Purple hairstreak