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Published May 2002
LGVN Animals - Butterflies


United Kingdom. The destruction of wildlife habitats is now so severe that most British butterflies have been unable to capitalise on warmer weather.

Research published in the journal Nature shows that three-quarters of the butterfly species that might have expanded northwards due to global warming have declined instead. Scientists from Butterfly Conservation, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and Universities of Leeds and Durham have shown that the negative effects of habitat loss have greatly outweighed the benefits of warmer summers.

Specialised, less mobile butterfly species have suffered particularly badly (89% have declined compared to only 50% of more mobile, generalist species).

The research is the first scientific analysis of 1.6 million butterfly sightings by 10,000 amateur naturalists and members of the public between 1995 and 1999 (summarised in The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland ).

Professor Chris Thomas from Leeds University who co-ordinated the university research said "Most species of butterflies that reach the northern edge of their geographic ranges in Britain have declined over the last 30 years even though the climate has warmed. This is surprising because climate warming is expected to increase the range of habitats these species can inhabit. Our computer models show that climatically suitable areas are available for colonisation, but most species (especially sedentary specialists) have failed to exploit them either because they no longer contain suitable breeding habitats, or because breeding habitats are out of reach."

Dr. Martin Warren, Director of Conservation at Butterfly Conservation and lead author of the Nature article, commented on the implications of the research. "Habitat degradation and climate change are opposing forces for butterflies in Britain, but our results show that habitat problems are more serious for many species. In fact, the severe declines of our specialist butterflies might have been even worse if it had not been for warmer summers in recent years. Unless we take action, the end result will be extinction, leaving our wildlife poorer and dominated by a few mobile, generalist butterflies. Wildlife habitats have become too fragmented by intensive agriculture, forestry and urban development. The protection and management of large-scale networks of habitat are required to minimise this risk and to maximise the ability of species to track the shifting climate."

Dr Jeremy Thomas, Head of biodiversity and conservation research at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said "The massive and long-term data sets describing UK butterfly distributions and population changes are uniquely comprehensive. The UK is the only nation in the world where we can detect these changes to wildlife that are likely to be occurring in many other developed countries."

Looking-Glass comments: Modern town gardening trends also fail to lend much thought towards butterfly conservation. Lack of flowery shrubs and plants which can attract butterflies are an increasingly rare site, replaced instead by environmentally unfriendly designer layouts with no natural ground coverage or undisturbed areas. (See the wildlife files at VeggieGlobal) The decline in butterfly population parallels the general decline of British Wildlife and insects. (See the wildlife files at veggieglobal) Help to regenerate butterfly habitats in your own back yard.

Further Information: Butterfly Conservation Web Site

Further reading:

The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland Jim Asher (Editor), Martin Warren (Editor), Richard Fox (Editor), Paul Harding (Editor), Gail Jeffcoate (Editor), Stephen Jeffcoate (Editor)


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