Habitat key to survival

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THE Borders will have a clearer idea of how the region’s butterflies fared over the wet summer when volunteers’ counts come in towards the end of the year.

Wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation says the cool, wet weather has hit numbers nationally – its Big Butterfly Count found the average number of individual butterflies seen per count was down by 11 per cent compared with last year’s figures.

Richard Fox, Butterfly Conservation surveys manager said: “The results show overall it was a very poor summer for butterflies. The dismal summer weather is undoubtedly to blame, although many butterflies have suffered long-term declines as a result of destruction of their habitats by human activities.”

Nearly 1,000 counts were undertaken in Scotland, while in the rest of the UK more than 33,000 people took part, seeing in excess of 320,000 butterflies and day-flying moths.

But the picture is not one of doom and gloom in the local area, says Barry Prater of the charity’s Borders branch, with whom members and local enthusiasts log sightings.

He told The Southern: “If there’s a prolonged period of poor weather, butterflies don’t like flying, they shelter deep in vegetation where they can keep out of the bad weather. But most butterflies, once the weather picks up, are out on the wing and will set about doing the things that butterflies do which is feed and mate.

“The bad weather means we humans don’t see them, but as long as there are periods when they can fly around, they should secure the next generation.”

He argues the weather changes year on year and if that was the sole determinant of the future of butterflies, they would be extinct.

Far more important is the butterflies’ habitat.

He told us: “Although we worry about the weather, I think for the long-term survival of butterflies, the weather is not such a big issue. The big issue is loss of habitat – shelter, plants for adults to feed on – but more importantly, food plants for their caterpillars

“If there are no food plants for caterpillars, the adults won’t know where to lay their eggs and there won’t be future generations.”

One biodiversity action plan priority species, the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, is a butterfly that is doing well in the Borders where there are small colonies, with one particularly strong near Gordon Moss.

“The Fritillary is doing well because there are pockets of good habitat which are, so far, safe – they haven’t been ploughed up or fertilised. We have maybe a dozen spots where they occur, ” said Mr Prater.

Another nationally-threatened species is the Northern Brown Argus found in coastal areas and inland on lightly grazed grassland.

“We have a stronghold in the Borders – but that doesn’t mean we should be careless of it, we should cherish it,” said Mr Prater.

In Scotland, the most sighted butterfly was the Small Tortoiseshell (ninth most seen in UK), second was the Small White (similarly placed UK-wide) and third was the Ringlet (11th on the UK listing), which is commonly seen in the Borders.

Mr Prater said: “If birds nest and one year for some reason they fail, they can come back next year and try again: butterflies can’t. Caterpillar food plants and the right habitat is crucial.”

“It’s only when we get records in towards the end of the year we will have a clearer picture.”