Sir David Attenborough wants YOU to count butterflies

Sir David Attenborough wants YOU to help with the world’s biggest butterfly count, and says spending 15 minutes counting the insects offers ‘precious breathing space’ from modern life

  • The 92-year-old broadcaster is trying to encourage butterfly conservation
  • The ‘Big Butterfly Count’ monitors 19 different species over a three week period 
  • Information collected by members of the public is used to monitor butterflies
  • If the latest heatwave becomes a drought, it could devastate insect populations

Sir David Attenborough is urging people to take part in the annual ‘Big Butterfly Count’, the largest event of its kind in the world.

The three-week event is crucial to monitor nationwide butterfly levels.

The 92-year-old veteran broadcaster also said spending time outside to count the insects will help people escape the pressures of modern life by providing ‘precious breathing space’.

The summer heatwave hitting the UK at the moment has provided some of the best conditions for butterflies in decades.

However, experts have warned that should the warm weather turn into a drought, plants will wither and caterpillars will starve — causing chaos for the insects.

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Sir David Attenborough is urging people to take part in the Big Butterfly Count. The broadcasting icon claims spending time in the great outdoors allows people to escape the pressures of modern life by providing ‘precious breathing space’

The Big Butterfly Count starts today and will take place over the next three weeks.

Experts claim the benefits of the study are two-fold and benefit both the butterflies and the volunteers counting them.

Primarily, the count is designed to assess the success of butterfly populations across the UK, however, it is also hoped the project will improve the mental health of those involved in the count.

Research has found that mental health issues such as depression and anxiety can be alleviated by spending time in nature.

This year has seen the UK experience the ideal combination of a cold winter and a settled late spring and summer, enabling spring butterfly populations to thrive.


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The annual count could record a bumper year for species such as holly blue, common white, common blue, and red admirals.

But the ongoing hot, dry conditions nationwide could mean plants wither away and the next generation of caterpillars cannot find the food they need to survive.

Populations of butterflies collapsed as a result of the 1976 drought for this reason,  wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation cautioned.

The Big Butterfly Count, organised by Butterfly Conservation and sponsored by B&Q, asks people to spot and record 17 species of common butterflies as well as two day-flying moths during three weeks at the height of summer.

The summer heatwave experienced throughout the UK has provided some of the best conditions for butterflies in decades and the common blue butterflies (pictured) could also see bumper numbers in the annual Big Butterfly Count

Mental health charity Mind is supporting the Big Butterfly Count as a ‘wonderful way of interacting with the environment’ and championing the benefits of spending time in nature. 

Butterfly Conservation president and veteran broadcaster Sir David Attenborough has spoken of the mental health benefits of spending time in nature, even at home watching garden wildlife.

‘I have been privileged to have witnessed some truly breath-taking wildlife spectacles in far-flung locations but some of my most memorable experiences have happened when I’ve been simply sitting and watching the wildlife that lives where I do,’ he said.

‘A few precious moments spent watching a stunning red admiral or peacock butterfly feeding amongst the flowers in my garden never fails to bring me great pleasure.

‘Spending time with nature offers us all precious breathing space away from the stresses and strains of modern life, it enables us to experience joy and wonder, to slow down and to appreciate the wildlife that lives side by side with us.’

People are asked to spot 17 common butterflies and two day-flying moths in the Big Butterfly Count. The Big Butterfly Count involves spending 15 minutes in a sunny spot counting butterflies and submitting sightings online

Sir David also said the Big Butterfly Count, which involves spending 15 minutes in a sunny spot counting butterflies and submitting sightings online, can help gather vital information that may help protect them in the future.

More than three-quarters of the UK’s butterflies have declined in the last 40 years, with some common species, such as the small tortoiseshell, suffering significant slumps.

Sir David said: ‘A cause for great concern over recent years is that many of our once common and widespread species like the large white, small copper and gatekeeper have started to struggle, mirroring the declines of rarer species.

‘Butterfly Conservation has also revealed that butterflies are declining faster in our towns and cities than in the countryside.

‘So please take part in the Big Butterfly Count this summer, we need to know, now, more than ever before, just what is happening to butterflies in our towns, in our gardens and in our countryside.’

The annual count could record a bumper year for species such as holly blue (pictured) but experts have warned that should the warm weather turn into a drought, the fallout would be ‘catastrophic’ for the insects as plants wither and caterpillars starve

The summer heatwave experienced throughout the UK has provided some of the best conditions for butterflies, including the red Admiral (pictured), in decades and Sir David Attenborough is encouraging the public to back the scheme

WHY DO BUTTERFLIES HAVE SUCH VARIED WING PATTERNS?  

The wings of butterflies, moths, birds and other creatures contain structures on the nanometre scale which can produce a range of striking optical effects.

They can produce iridescence, metallic colours, and other flashy effects that are important for a number of behavioural and ecological functions. 

Light from the sun bounces off these materials in different directions, with this refraction working like a prism, splitting the light into its component colours.

As the viewing angle changes, the refracted light becomes visible as a shimmering display.

Iridescent surfaces help animals to elude potential predators. 

When these creatures fly, the upper surface of their wings continually changes from bright to dull because the angle of the light striking the wing changes.

As they move their wings up and down during flight, they seem to disappear, and then reappear a short distance away.  

Dark undersides to their wings often strengthen this effect.

Combined with an undulating pattern of flight, this ability to change colour quickly makes them difficult for predators to pursue.

The specific pattern is often dependant upon the pressures of a specific environment. 

It can be as a result of the other prey animals, as a result of the predators in the area or as a result of the flowers in a certain habitat.

Some animals have evolved to look like poisonous pants, so predators avoid eating them.

Others have evolved methods of camouflage, to blend in to a specific background to make them harder to spot. 

Some have evolved garish patterns as a result of male-to-male competition, as they compete for a mate. 

The end result is a huge amount of different butterfly patterns and colours depending on evolutionary history and its habitat.  

According to a report that was published by the Department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra), butterfly numbers in the UK are in decline due to poor land management, a new report has warned.

Since 1990, butterfly numbers have dropped by 27 per cent in farmland and by 58 per cent in woods, the government study found.

In response to the report, charities have claimed reform is needed to the country’s farming laws in order to protect the environment in the wake of Brexit. 

Environmental charities claim that butterflies, like the iconic Gatekeeper butterfly (pictured), bees and other insects are particularly vulnerable as rules and regulations change following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU

The gatekeeper, large skipper and small tortoiseshell (pictured) are in long-term decline. A Defra report itself neglects to provide an explanation for the drop in the number of farmland species

Species in long-term decline on farmland include the gatekeeper, large skipper and small tortoiseshell. 

Woodland species that are struggling include the brown argus, common blue, peacock and purple hairstreak.

The report blames the dwindling numbers of butterflies on the ‘lack of woodland management and loss of open spaces in woods.’ 

Conservation groups have placed the blame on the shoulders of farmers, citing pesticide use and the loss of wild areas as the main antagonists. 

Nigel Bourn, director of science at Butterfly Conservation, told The Times that keeping perspective is crucial, and we should not let last year’s positive result skew our thinking. 

‘That the worst five years ever for butterflies have all been in the last decade should ring major alarm bells,’ he explained.   

Following the report’s publication, a total of 18 conservation and environmental group responded, calling for widespread changes to environmental policy.

They claim that butterflies, bees and other insects are particularly vulnerable as rules and regulations change following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. 

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