Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Save our Butterflies

Foreword by the Green Arrow

My my. What a deceptive article. First glance, images of beautiful butterflies but when you read the article, the message is loud and clear. Tornadoes to follow. Talk about the Butterfly Effect.

Save Our Butterflies

By Finlandia

A Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui)
Photo by Alvesgaspar

This year has been a bumper year for British butterflies, and readers who have ventured out into the countryside or explored overgrown corners of their towns may have been surprised to find large numbers of common species such as the Red Admiral, Peacock or Large White fluttering around fragrant Buddleia bushes or amongst tall stands of grass, nettles or wildflowers.

Last week, in the water-meadows near my home, I saw a Painted Lady, or Vanessa cardui, to use the scientific name. She – or it might have been he – settled on the path in front of me and opened up as if to say, "Look at me, look how beautiful I am!" And she was beautiful, with her large, perfectly intact wings, black, white and vivid orange in the afternoon sun. After a couple of minutes of silent admiration, I stepped over and continued walking. Then, by the river, I saw another, and another and another, until it seemed that the whole riverbank was alive with these creatures, fluttering to and fro in a random, collective dance of a kind that I had not seen since childhood.

I am happy to report that it was not an isolated incident. Some weeks previously, in another field, I had chanced upon dozens of Small Tortoiseshell butterflies; and a few days after that, whilst cycling down a country road, I had noticed something flickering above a patch of roadside weeds: it was a multitude of Meadow Browns.

Peacock butterfly on a Buddleia bush
Photo by Fujnky

Last week was Save our Butterflies Week. I only discovered this yesterday, and it prompted me to Google for an explanation of the unusual abundance of butterflies in my locality. Apparently, it is mainly to do with weather conditions. In the case of the Painted Lady, which migrates here from North Africa, it is to do with conditions in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, which this year have been especially good for the plants that the caterpillars like to eat. Experts estimate that by the beginning of August, Britain may host a billion of these butterflies – a rare example of a mass immigration that Brits will be delighted to see!

My own sightings would seem to suggest that UK butterflies are doing well. However, according to Butterfly Conservation, a charity dedicated to the protection of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and their habitats, the long-term trend is downwards:
"Five of the UK's 60 resident butterflies have become extinct over the past 100 years and over half the remainder are threatened. Moths too have suffered major declines".
Scientists are mostly in agreement as to the causes of this crisis: they include intensive farming, pollution, land drainage and the destruction of habitats by development, both in greenfield sites and so-called brownfield sites (those derelict, urban spaces partially recolonized by nature). The scientists also agree that, because butterflies are especially sensitive to environmental degradation, the decline of species such as the Heath Fritillary, the Silver-studded Blue and the Duke of Burgundy may provide early indications of more general threats to biological diversity. This was acknowledged by the government back in 1994, when it published the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. This report describes many of the threats to plant and animal species and habitats, and makes numerous policy recommendations, but it is perhaps as notable for its omissions as for its scholarly inclusions. Under the heading, The Main Threats to UK Biological Diversity, is listed "built development – houses and roads", but nowhere is there any real discussion of the human population growth that is the main cause of such development. The report contains analyses of ant populations, rabbit populations, seal populations and so forth, but evades the issue of the UK's human population and its likely impact on environment and biodiversity.

A Large Blue butterfly
Photo by PJC&Co - no link yet

Biologists and ecologists do excellent work in monitoring the state of Britain's wildife, and in advancing our knowledge of the complex and sometimes fragile interdependencies between plants, animals, the climate and the landscape. Scientifically-based conservation groups have often been very successful in educating the public and the political establishment, and have achieved several practical successes – notably the reintroduction of the Large Blue butterfly, which 30 years ago had disappeared from Britain and was facing global extinction. (There are now 33 colonies of Large Blues in the UK, including the world's biggest colony, in Somerset.) But the fact is that scientists don't wield political power, and it only takes a handful of malign or stupid, short-termist politicians to negate their collective efforts. Thus, for example, whilst ecologists urge conservation of wildlife habitats to reduce the possibility of mass extinctions of native species, present government policies support rapid population expansion and development, entailing fragmentation or wholesale destruction of countless habitats.

The Optimum Population Trust (OPT)
believes that current rates of population expansion could turn Britain into "an environmental disaster area". They convincingly arue that a sustainable population for Britain would be around 30 million, at most. What this means is that if we want to be self-sufficient in food, water, clean energy and other resources, then we must halve the population. Otherwise, we will continue to be dependent on other countries (including some politically dodgy ones) for many of our essentials. Though a 50% reduction in numbers seems drastic, in principle it could be achieved naturally in a matter of decades, because the British birthrate is below replacement level. Unfortunately, present conditions make this unworkable, because each year mass (legal) immigration adds more than a quarter of a million to the UK population.

According to David Nicholson-Lord
, Policy Director of the OPT:
"As the main force driving current population growth, immigration feeds through into rising greenhouse gas emissions; more crowding, congestion, development; increased pressure on water and energy supplies, farmland and green space. A population of 85 million would require 15 million more houses – nearly five times the number in London. At least 10 million new dwellings – three Londons, in housing terms – would thus be needed for immigrants and their descendants, as well as, for example, at least six new nuclear power stations or 10,000 wind turbines."
These constructions would kill countless millions of plants and animals and, more significantly in the long term, would destroy habitats. Dispersing developments around the country would do little to mitigate the impact, as research has shown that even smaller-scale, fragmentary development can be severely damaging, since many species require an unbroken range of a certain, minimum size.

With the growing human population also comes pollution, to which some species of plants and animals are especially vulnerable. Certain lichens, for example, are intolerant of airborne pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, whilst some aquatic insects can be driven out by quite low levels of water-borne pollutants. You might ask: So what if we lose a few lowly insects? Well, the answer is that nobody really knows the long-term consequences of their going extinct. But consider the honeybee, which plays such a crucial role in pollinating crops; or the much-maligned wasp, which helps to keep down aphid populations; or the various types of plants that can help to purify water. The eminent biologist Lord May of Oxford has argued that such "services" provided by other species have immense economic value.

The financial costs of environmental damage caused by overpopulation are certainly worrying. But there is another, more subtle danger, which is to do with our psychological and spiritual connection to the landscape, flora and fauna of our place of origin. Unquestionably, our identities as individuals and as a people are closely bound up with our natural surroundings – with the trees, flowers and creatures that have co-evolved with us on these islands over hundreds of thousands of years. Elements of the natural world are embedded in our religious and cultural traditions, in our buildings and crafts, in the pictures we make and the stories we tell. Such intimate connections to nature are evident the world over, and the Siberian no doubt feels the same sense of attachment to the living tundra as the Australian Aborigine feels to his, very different, environment. I believe that, underneath the masking distractions of civilization, this sense of attachment to nature survives also in modern people, and is an important part of what makes us want to protect and sustain it.

Whether such a primal feeling can survive transplantation to foreign surroundings is a moot question. Does the Englishman in Alaska, the Swede in West Africa or the Somalian in Scotland feel the same sense of ownership and responsibility for his surroundings as he would at home? It is my contention that the indigenous peoples of any geographical region or nation are most likely to nurture the natural endowment of that region or nation, and that foreign peoples having no historical or emotional connection to it, are least likely to.

Butterflies and moths have existed on the earth for a very long time indeed: the oldest butterfly fossils uncovered so far are around 50 million years old. Yet in the space of a few generations, some of our native British species have been pushed to the very edge of extinction. Butterflies are important because they are beautiful and because they are an integral part of the web of life on these islands. They are valuable indicators of the health of the environment, and can give us early warning of bigger threats to biological diversity. And, like the oak and the elm, the rose and the thistle, the sparrow and the robin, the fox and the badger, British butterflies are a part of our national psyche, our identity as a people.

We have seen that one of the main problems for butterflies and for wildlife in general is the destruction of habitats by development, primarily housing and transport infrastructure. We have seen also that the main driving force for such developments is population expansion, to which mass immigration is a major contributor. It is impossible, then, to avoid the conclusion that present UK immigration policy poses a serious threat to biodiversity – which is a measure of the richness and stability of the web of life – and hence to our natural heritage. Once lost, biodiversity is difficult, perhaps impossible, to restore, and this factor alone should be enough for us to oppose the recklessness of the government's position on this issue. Perhaps the greatest irony is that, in pursuing its ideological objective of increasing human "diversity", the establishment may bring about a potentially catastrophic reduction of plant and animal diversity.

We need to ask ourselves this: Are we prepared to risk losing native species in order to accommodate a massively expanded population? And are we willing to face that day, in the not-too-distant future, when our grandchild or great-grandchild looks up and asks: "What's a butterfly?".


Discover Butterflies in Britain David Newland, 2006. By all accounts one of the best printed guides to British butterflies, where to find them and how to identify them.

UK Butterflies An online guide to the butterflies of the British Isles
. Includes comprehensive photographs and detailed descriptions of all British species.