Grass-feeding butterflies defy the second wettest year on record

Grass-feeding butterfly species defied the second wettest year on record to enjoy an abundance of growth in 2012 across the UK’s countryside, according to a new survey. 

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Image: ©Lucy Blackall

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Last year’s near-constant rain prompted substantial grass growth that provided good conditions for certain grassland species of butterfly, such as the meadow brown, ringlet and gatekeeper species. The meadow brown has enjoyed its best year since the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey (WCBS) released information that almost twice as many of this species were counted in 2012 than 2011.

The WCBS involves counting butterflies in more than 700 randomly generated 1km-squares across the UK countryside. The WCBS assess the health of butterflies across the countryside rather than managing a hotspot, which helps the team assess where the popular areas are and why.

A relatively dry start to 2012 followed by lots of heavy rain saw bumper grass growth – providing some species with an abundance of favoured food plants. Due to this downpour of rain, the meadow brown thrived, with more than 19,000 being counted over 2012, which has almost doubled since the previous year.

This was perhaps the most abundant butterfly for the third successive year, seen in 89% of surveyed areas. The ringlet and gatekeeper were seen to have thrived on this wet year too, becoming more widespread than ever before.

Needless to say the wet weather wasn’t all good news for our delicate-winged friends. Species such as the small tortoiseshell, a garden favourite, suffered, with less than half surviving the wet year. The common blue and the wall butterfly also suffered due to the constant downpours. 

©Shutterstock – The Common Blue

WCBS Co-ordinator Dr Zoë Randle said: “Last year was fantastic for the meadow brown however the overall picture is that butterfly populations are suffering in the wider countryside and this needs to be addressed urgently.”

Kate Risely, who co-ordinates the BTO butterfly surveyors, said: “Record-breaking rainfall during the summer months affected birds and butterflies alike, and many species suffered a disastrous season. Credit is due to all the volunteer recorders who braved the weather and collected this valuable data on butterfly populations.”

The WCBS is run by Butterfly Conservation, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) as part of the United Kingdom Butterfly Monitoring scheme (UKBMS).

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Words: Lucy Blackall