[A]NDIE HARPER: Have you noticed fewer butterflies in your garden this year over previous summers? Populations grew slightly last year, after their worst year on record in 2012. It’s hoped the good weather this summer will help to boost numbers further, so David Attenborough no less wants your help to count the numbers of butterflies in the UK as part of the world’s largest butterfly survey. Butterfly scientist Richard Fox can explain all. Richard, good morning to you.
RICHARD FOX: Good morning.
ANDIE HARPER: Yes, 2012 a bad summer for a huge number of things, not just butterflies. It was so miserable. But good to hear that there was an improvement in numbers last year.
RICHARD FOX: Yes that’s right. So 2012 was the wettest year for a century in Britain, and was terrible for us and for butterflies. We found in the results of Big Butterfly Count last year, in which nearly 50,000 people took part all over Britain, we found that many butterflies, many common and widespread butterflies, had bounced back. Still their numbers remain much lower than they were a few decades ago. Now obviously what we want to know this summer, this year’s Big Butterfly Count starts tomorrow and runs for three weeks, is whether that resurgence last year was just a little blip, or whether the butterflies will be able to use that as a springboard to increase their populations further this year.
ANDIE HARPER: I suppose the nature of people’s gardens dictates whether they have butterflies or not. We have recently moved. We had a garden which was completely devoted to flowers in the front, buddleia obviously, echinacea and the like. And last year people used to come to our property, we were selling it, and they were just staggered by the numbers of butterflies. Now this year we’re in a different property, still a lovely garden, but not the numbers. So it really depends on the environment, doesn’t it?
RICHARD FOX: Well that’s true, and your last garden sounds absolutely wonderful. I’d quite like to have seen that myself. But the Big Butterfly Count is not just a garden count. You can do it in your garden, but equally you can go out, you can do it in local parks or out in the countryside. You can do it while you’re walking the dog, or taking the children or the grandchildren out on a walk in the country, and do the Big Butterfly Count there. So yes, choose a nice flowery place. Choose a sunny day, and go out and count butterflies for fifteen minutes, and send the sightings in to the Big Butterfly Count website. And then we’ll know how they’re doing.
ANDIE HARPER: How scientific and accurate is it? Because butterflies are rather like birds. I indulge in the Great British Garden Bird count, and you think have I seen that one before? And it’s not quite like birds when you perhaps count six sparrows all at once, or three blackbirds, because butterflies, by the very nature of them, flutter in and flutter out, don’t they?
RICHARD FOX: Yes they do. Obviously you can try not to count the same individual over and over again, if it’s obvious that it’s the same one just kind of fluttering round your buddleia bush. But generally speaking you’ll get an idea for how many there are there. And we’ve got so many sightings coming in. In previous years we had about 800,000 butterflies were counted last year in the three weeks of Big Butterfly Count. So in that huge amount of information the fact that a few people might be counting a few butterflies more than once doesn’t really matter in terms of the statistics and the trends that are coming out. And of course that’s the same from year to year. So just as many people will count the same butterfly twice this year as last year and the year before. So we can still measure the real trends in butterfly numbers from the data.
ANDIE HARPER: So what about species? Because are you expecting maybe to discover a new species? I was watching Look East our regional programme last night and they were on the hunt for a Yellow Legged Tortoiseshell or something.
RICHARD FOX: That’s right.
ANDIE HARPER: Very similar to the ordinary Tortoiseshell. And that’s the thing, isn’t it, really? Some of them are very similarly marked, aren’t they?
RICHARD FOX: They are. But Big Butterfly Count is for everyone. Young and old, you don’t have to be a butterfly expert. Just go to the Big Butterfly Count website and print off an ID chart. The Count focuses on the common and widespread species. The Peacocks, the small Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals, Meadow Browns, species that you see in your garden in the local environment, the local countryside. So those are the species to focus on. Don’t worry too much about identifying some of the really difficult rarer Blues and that kind of thing. The Yellow legged Tortoiseshells you mentioned, or Scarce Tortoiseshells is their other name, they’re very very rare migrants that have just, a few of them, arrived on the East coast just in the last few days, the first ones seen in Britain for over fifty years. So it’s very exciting. But when you go out to do Big Butterfly Count and you see Tortoiseshell butterflies, then they’re going to be Small Tortoiseshell butterflies unless you’re incredibly lucky.
ANDIE HARPER: And whilst there are some newer species making their ways to this shore, are there any that you are really worried about, butterflies that were once common that are not so plentiful any more?
RICHARD FOX: Yes, well The Wall is a good example of that. The Wall is a lovely orangey mottled brown butterfly, and it used to be really common. You used to see it. You’d have seen it on farms across Cambridgeshire, on farm tracks and in the hedgerows. And that’s undergone a massive decline, not just in Cambridgeshire but in Britain as a whole, over the last fifty or sixty years. And Small Tortoiseshell was also in great decline. People were very worried about it. In fact its numbers have dropped by 78% since the 1970’s. But it had a good year last year, and there have been good numbers of them around so far this year as well. So Small Tortoiseshell hopefully is on the up. Hopefully it’s recovering, and people will go out and count it for Big Butterfly Count.
ANDIE HARPER: Now to do this people go onto the website, don’t they, www.bigbutterflycount.org, and there all the information they need, pictures of the things, and telling them what to do?
RICHARD FOX: Yes, exactly. So it’s really easy to do. It only needs fifteen minutes in any sunny place. Print off the identification chart, take that out with you to help. Note down what you see in those fifteen minutes and then go back to the website, put in your sightings, and sub,it them. You can do as many counts as you like, on different days over the next three weeks, or in different places. And there’s even a free app. for your smartphone, where you get all the same information, and you can submit your sightings then and there from the great outdoors.
ANDIE HARPER: They are such magnificent creatures, so wonderful to see in the summer. Let’s just hope the results are even more encouraging this time around Richard.
RICHARD FOX: Thanks very much. Yes let’s hope so.
ANDIE HARPER: It’s been really good to talk to you. That’s butterfly scientist and expert Richard Fox.