I enjoyed a great day at the beach with my offspring a few days ago.
It was bright and sunny and warm enough for the kids to avoid instant hypothermia when they jumped in the sea. We even spotted a few butterflies flitting about, like us, making the most of the fair weather. Next time we’re out we’ll be taking a more scientific interest.
With their delicate wings and mesmerising movements, butterflies are one of the hallmarks of summertime. Some fly for just a handful of days and others a few weeks.
There are around 30 different species found regularly in Scotland. Generalists such as meadow brown and small tortoiseshell can be found all across the country, while specialists like the large heath are confined to specific locations or habitats. Some are resident, over-wintering and breeding here, others are migrants, flying in each year from southern Europe or north Africa.
Short-lived and exquisitely beautiful, these little insects serve as a sensitive indicator of the planet’s health. Their fragility means they are quick to react to change, so their struggle to survive can herald a serious warning about the environment.
Areas with plenty of butterflies and moths are rich in other invertebrates, which collectively provide a wide range of benefits such as pollination and natural pest control. They are also an important part of the food chain, providing sustenance for birds, bats and other animals.
Butterflies and moths have been around for at least 50 million years and are an astonishingly diverse group, comprising more than 250,000 species. The bad news is that many are disappearing, not just in Scotland but right across the UK. Three-quarters of all British butterflies are in decline. Four butterfly species and more than 60 moths have become extinct in the last 150 years.
Populations can show large natural fluctuations, mainly due to changing weather conditions and other environmental factors. The long-term changes have been linked to a range of factors, including loss of habitat, modern land use and climate change.
Studies show butterflies are faring worst in towns and cities, and specialist species are struggling more than generalists, as they are less able to adapt. Scotland’s specialists have dropped by 67 per cent since 1979, with numbers of small pearl bordered fritillary, large heath and grayling plummeting.
This year could be crucial for butterflies, after a string of poor seasons has seen numbers of some widespread species crash. Results from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme revealed 2016 was the fourth-worst year on record, with sightings of small tortoiseshell, peacock, meadow brown, gatekeeper, common blue and small copper all down. Conservationists are particularly concerned about the common blue, which despite its name seems to be vanishing from urban areas in Scotland, and the small tortoiseshell.
We can all help the experts gain a clearer picture of how our butterflies are doing by taking part in the annual Big Butterfly Count, which kicks off on Friday.
The nationwide survey, run by the charity Butterfly Conservation, saw more than 36,000 people taking note of almost 400,000 individual butterflies and day-flying moths across the UK in 2016. Perhaps this year we can do better. You can take part whether you’re in your garden, the local park, woods or at the beach, and it’s great for keeping youngsters entertained.