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Bugs, butterflies and a natural future

Friday 30 July 2010

This has been a disappointing year so far for butterflies, our countryside commentator John Sheard believes. Yet this is the week of the big butterfly count: will it give us important clues to our future relationship with Mother Nature?

FOR most of this year, my wife and I have worried about the health of a large buddleia tree we have treasured for some 20 years since it was a sapling. Last winter’s savage frosts seemed to have killed it off for in spring, it was still covered with dead brown foliage from last autumn with little sign of new growth on the way.

Then came that mini heat-wave in June and it suddenly came back to life. Imagine our pleasure when, a week ago, it proudly presented an immense show of its distinctive purple spikes, one of the best shows ever. But our joy did not last for long because, as my wife remarked disconsolately, “Where are all the butterflies?”

The buddleia is commonly known as “the butterfly tree” and there was a time when this specimen swarmed with the creatures in all shapes and hues. We spent hours simply watching them come and go, counting the different species as they danced in the sunlight. But on one day last weekend, we did not see a single visitor.

Admittedly, there had been a long spell of rain which has produced, to the west of the Yorkshire Dales, the ironic situation of there being a hosepipe ban at the same time as widespread flood warnings. And rain makes it difficult for butterflies to take to the wing.

But back on my allotment during the week, I have spotted just one tortoiseshell and, inevitably, a few cabbage whites. Yet even the latter have been in short supply and so far (touch wood) I have not found any of those fat green caterpillars which love to chomp their way through my brassicas.

Now this is very sad, because this happens to be Big Butterfly Week, when nature lovers have been asked to log any sighting of butterflies and report them to the Butterfly Conservation (the count ends on Sunday, August 1, see www.bigbutterflycount.org/).

But if the national results are as depressing as my own observations, this is more than sad: it suggests that something, somewhere, is going seriously wrong.

If they did it then, perhaps we can do something just as important now.

As a fly fisherman, I have reported in this column several times that the huge hatches of trout stream flies like olives, sedges and mayflies of thirty years ago seem to be long gone. This, of course, means there are fewer, and smaller, wild brown trout. This I put down to water pollution, a menace which is now being tackled with some determination.

But land-borne insects like the butterflies seem to be in steep decline, too, and although the butterflies are the glowing jewels in the crown of bug life, it is the thousands of smaller insects which form the bottom of the food chain for song birds and even some predatory insects like dragonflies. Take away this first link and the whole chain could disintegrate.

All this is happening as the new Government gathers evidence for a major white paper on the future of Britain’s natural life and our human relationship with the lady we used to call Old Mother Nature. As it does so, the new Defra Secretary Caroline Spelman has promised this will be the “greenest Government ever.”

That is quite a claim but some rural experts are taking it very seriously indeed. As we reported on Tuesday this week, Stephanie Hilborne, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, compared the action needed now with that taken back in 1949 to set up the national parks, one of the most important conservation measures ever enacted by a British Government.

That, too, is to exhibit huge expectations, particularly at a time when the nation is broke. But to be fair, the Labour Party set up the first national parks when we were on the verge of bankruptcy after World War 11. If they did it then, perhaps we can do something just as important now.

“Biodiversity” is very much the conservation buzz word in these early years of the 21st Century but perhaps, so far, we have concentrated too much on the pretty and popular creatures that are increasingly rare in our countryside, the otters and the water voles, the peregrine falcons and barn owls, indeed the beautiful butterflies.

But it seems to me that what is going wrong starts much lower down in Old Ma Nature’s locker, with the insects which prop up the whole food chain. It may not be glamorous – or “sexy” to use the politicians’ phrase – but this is where we should concentrate much of this promised research. Time for the ugly bugs to go under the microscope.

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