How we look after butterflies

silver studded blue butterfly

There used to be clouds of browns, blues and fritillaries fluttering in our downs and meadows. Now, butterflies are now a precious sight. Our rangers are working hard to manage the land to bring back our butterflies and keep our grasslands colourful.

A butterfly dancing in a flower meadow is a highlight of anyone’s summer walk. It’s evidence that this emblem of warmth and sunshine is our best-loved insect. But it’s also a sign that they’re not as common a sight as they used to be.

Butterflies are not just pretty, they play an important role in our ecosystems as flower pollinators. They also feature in the food chain as a food source for birds, bats and other insect-eating mammals.

Adonis Blue (male) - Polyommatus bellargus - May to June, August to September – Chalk grassland
Adonis Blue (male) - Polyommatus bellargus

Butterflies at risk

The latest ‘state of the nation’ assessment of the UK’s butterflies by Butterfly Conservation (2015) shows that three-quarters of the UK’s species have declined since monitoring began in 1976. This is mainly due to habitat loss because of changes in land use. 

To the rescue

Fortunately, our wildlife advisers and rangers work with partners at Butterfly conservation, Natural England, Wildlife Trusts and local farmers. Together, we manage particular sites, such as chalk grassland, to benefit butterflies.

How cows can help butterflies

Denbies Hillside chalk grassland escarpment in the Surrey Hills has a thriving population of Adonis blue, Chalkhill blue and rare Silver-spotted skipper butterflies. Lead Ranger Rob Hewer works with the local farmer to bring hardy Belted Galloway cattle onto the slopes. They spread seeds in their dung and disturb the ground with their hooves to allow new seeds in the seedbank to germinate.

The cattle also rip the coarse grasses with their strong tongues to create a tussocky texture to the grass. The tussocks are little micro climates where different plants can germinate and butterflies such as the Marbled white butterfly like to shelter.

Sheep help too

Other butterflies, such as the Silver-spotted skipper, prefer a shorter, sparser sward of grass. Sheep are the best grazers for this and are employed on rich butterfly sites such as Ivinghoe Hill on the Ashridge Estate in Buckinghamshire. The sheep tightly nibble low-grown grasses and other plants in the winter after they’ve gone to seed. 

These goats are helping Adonis Blue butterflies thrive
These goats are helping Adonis Blue butterflies thrive

How can I help?

  • Sometimes rangers need to intervene and clear scrub to keep the grassland open for flowers and butterflies. If you volunteer with your local National Trust ranger team, you could be involved in everything from stock watching to scrub-clearance or butterfly surveying.
  • Join the National Trust to support our work on chalk grasslands and other threatened habitats.
  • Support wildlife-friendly, traditionally managed farms.