Around 80% of UK butterfly species have declined since the 1970s, according to a new report.
Scientists at the wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation, who released the State Of UK Butterflies 2022 Report, said the drop in the colourful insects is indicative of the wider biodiversity crisis.
Using data collected by volunteers across the country, the scientists measured butterfly abundance and distribution and found that habitat-specific butterflies, such as those dependent on flower-rich grassland, heathland and woodland clearings, have declined by 27% and have disappeared from two-thirds of the area they occupied in 1976.
Other species that are able to breed in urban or farmed environments have been more resilient but as a group they have still fallen by 17% in their numbers and by 8% in their distribution.
However, most species were found to have been constrained by climate change as well as other human factors such as farming, urban development and pollution.
Butterfly Conservation classifies half the UK’s remaining butterfly species as threatened or near threatened and has placed them on a Red List of vulnerable species.
“We know far more about UK butterflies than any other group of insects anywhere on the planet. And so they’re telling us about the fate not only of many thousands of other species in the UK but also about the general health of our environment.”
He also pointed to some of the conservation success stories, such as the reintroduction of the Chequered Skipper to England and a succession of long-term conservation projects that are driving up Wood White populations in the West Midlands while peatland restoration on lowland bogs in Scotland is helping the Large Heath butterfly.
“But at the moment we’re dealing with the tip of the iceberg, we’re dealing with the most threatened species – which is the right thing to do – the ones that are nearest to going extinct in the UK.
“We’re stopping them from tipping over into extinction but there are many, many more species declining.”
Butterfly Conservation is calling for more resources to be made available for targeted conservation measures that would go beyond saving species from extinction and instead restore habitats so that butterflies and other wildlife species can thrive.
On Tuesday, the Government unveiled the first revision of its 25-year Environmental Plan set out in 2018, through which it said it wants to create and restore at least 500,000 hectares of new wildlife habitats and restore woodland by paying landowners to plant trees until 2025 using a £750 million Nature for Climate Fund.
Dr Fox said of the Government’s new plans: “It’s only trying to stop the declines, it’s not trying to put things back to a healthy state.
“This needs a long-term, big step up in our approach. A big injection of resources is really important but that needs to be sustained.
“As soon as you stop, if the other forces that have caused the declines are carrying on – industrial farming, urban development, pollution of the environment with pesticides, nitrogen, then add climate change as well – then the declines are just going to start again.
“We do need to think about threatened species and what precisely they need, but money and effort that’s poured into protecting threatened species and stopping them from going extinct will absolutely benefit lots of other wildlife. And of course, therefore, people as well.”