2012 is a disaster for our butterflies

Wall brown butterfly
Wall brown butterfly

I HAVE been sitting in this lovely woodland garden in the middle of a nature reserve enjoying the wild orchids, bluebells and primroses, nuthatches and marsh tits, but hardly a single butterfly.

What a disaster 2012 has so far been for them. Yet – it is what I expected.

I have been doing the butterfly counts each week for the past 37 years and know only too well that a three or four year trough is normal. We are just starting one; down in the doldrums for the next four years.

I have surveyed our best insects with the national sampling methods as laid down back in 1975 by Dr Ernie Pollard of Monks Wood Research Station so the results are pretty accurate. They show normal peaks every seven years and then troughs for four.

The graph looks like a heart graph in the hospital but instead of being one second apart the peaks are seven years or thereabouts.

It is rather strange to go out of the back door from my kitchen into the “garden” or rather glade in the forest, and see nothing flying about in the sunshine around the wild roses and lilac.

In the past I have, after all, counted 23 different species there, seen from the washing-up sink. But this year, not even any whites. Often small whites come into the warm sheltered forest glades from oilseed rape fields, sometimes blown a mile or more as they travel across Sussex in the breeze.

At Kingley Vale, another nature reserve on a fold of the Downs near Chichester, it is just the same this year. I plod round my four mile transect sampling route and this year see hardly anything. Just a few small heaths and meadow browns at the moment, with an occasional red admiral. I think we have lost forever the wall brown, pictured here in a photo taken by Brian Henham at Steyning Rifle Range.

In my childhood I used to see these in the village streets along garden walls where they enjoyed the warmth and fed themselves on the garden flowers.

Over the years we have lost others too, such as pearl-bordered fritillary. But nature has a habit of surprising the watcher and even really wet summers like this should not be taken as an excuse to be gloomy and doomy. Things often bounce back. There are natural swings sometimes a century wide, not just seven years.

One case in point is the comma butterfly which in the 1800s was common all over southern Britain, then faded right away for 50 years and has now come back.

They hand on somewhere and just because we humans don’t see them does not mean they have gone forever. In favourable climatic conditions which may involve extremes of drought or floor they find niches of escape quite unknown to science.

Anyway, I’m now looking forward to July and August which has a different set of butterflies coming out – hopefully into my garden too.

Richard Williamson