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Big Butterfly Count count rebounds, hits four-year high

The annual Big Butterfly Count, a leading citizen science project in the UK organized by Butterfly Conservation, has brought some optimistic news for butterfly enthusiasts. According to the 2023 count, the UK has seen an increase in butterfly numbers, with over 1.5 million butterflies and day-flying moths recorded, contrasting sharply with last year’s record low.

On average, participants recorded 12 butterflies during each 15-minute counting session, a significant rise from the previous year’s average of nine. This marks the highest count in the past four years. The uplifting results can be attributed to this year’s summer heat, as well as the extreme temperatures and drought experienced in 2022.

Scientists had been concerned

The 2022 drought had scientists worried about the potential impact on butterfly populations. Their main concern was that the extreme heatwave might have negatively impacted the food sources of grass-feeding caterpillars, subsequently leading to a reduction in the number of adult butterflies.

Dr. Zoë Randle, a senior surveys officer at Butterfly Conservation, expressed relief, noting, “We now know that the effects of last year’s drought were not as bad for butterflies as we had feared.”

Dr. Randle explained that the fluctuating weather conditions this year have been advantageous for the butterfly population. The environment had ample green food plants available for caterpillars and a bounty of nectar-rich flowers to feed adult butterflies.

However, taking a step back and looking at the broader picture, the news isn’t as rosy. Data collected from The Big Butterfly Count over the past 13 years paints a worrying picture, showing significant declines in many butterfly species.

Big Butterfly Count isn’t all good news

Randle emphasizes, “While the number of butterflies recorded this summer has been the highest since 2019, the longer-term trends show worrying declines for some of the UK’s most common butterfly species.”

For instance, once commonly seen Small tortoiseshell butterflies have seen their population plummet by 30%. Other species like the green-veined white, common blue, ringlet, and speckled wood have also suffered, with declines of 61%, 44%, 41%, and 38%, respectively.

On a brighter note, the red admiral species is thriving, with an impressive 338% increase in population over the last year, landing it at the top of the chart with 248,077 sightings. Additionally, other species like the holly blue, small copper, painted lady, and large white have shown an upward trend, benefiting from the climatic crisis.

However, it’s not all sunshine for every species. For instance, while the gatekeeper took the second spot with a 12% improvement from 2022, its numbers have reduced by 28% over the past 13 years.

Dr. Richard Fox, the head of science at Butterfly Conservation, provides a cautionary perspective, highlighting that while weather variations do influence butterfly numbers, habitat destruction is a more pressing concern. Fox states, “Butterflies need a place to live. If they can feed, breed, and shelter, they can thrive.”

While this year’s butterfly count offers a glimmer of hope, the underlying long-term trends underscore the urgent need for conservation efforts and sustainable habitats to ensure these beautiful creatures continue to grace our gardens and wild spaces.

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