Feature: Which butterfly came out on top in the big count?

WINNER: The small white was the leader of the 2018 Big Butterfly Count.
WINNER: The small white was the leader of the 2018 Big Butterfly Count.
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The long hot summer wasn’t all that glorious for some our butterflies. Reporter Charlie Bullough breaks down the winners and losers of the 2018 Big Butterfly Count

PEOPLE power has helped reveal the fluctuating fortunes of some of our favourite butterflies during the long hot summer.

My feeling is it was a good summer for butterflies on average, although some species didn’t do well.

Richard Fox

A record 100,246 people took part in the Big Butterfly Count and spotted almost one million butterflies in the UK.

Butterfly Conservation’s three-week survey in July and August asked people to become citizen scientists by spending 15 minutes tracking the butterflies they saw.

The results have just been processed and its mixed news for some species. In short, the three main white butterflies are booming, while colourful flyers like the Small tortoiseshell, Red Admiral and Comma suffered significant slumps.

Richard Fox, Butterfly Conservation’s associate director of recording and research, said: “This year’s count has been a phenomenal success with more than 100,000 people enjoying beautiful butterflies, contributing towards conservation and reaping the mental and physical benefits of being outdoors in nature.

“Participants’ records are really important as they help us find out how the UK’s common species are faring and how to best protect them in the future.”

The butterfly expert believes the count’s popularity is down to “a perfect storm” of factors, like good weather, a heartfelt launch by Butterfly Conservation president Sir David Attenborough, media coverage and the power of social media.

He said: “It was amazing how many organisations were tweeting all sorts of things about the count, like libraries, private companies and celebrities.”

The campaign led to almost one million of the 19 target species being recorded during the official count period of July 20 to August 12.

A breakdown of the data reveals the winners and losers. The Small White was the most popular butterfly with 273,650 seen. The Large White was second and the Green-Veined White was seventh. Other success stories were the Holly Blue, which was up 122 per cent from 2017, while the Common Blue was the sixth most popular butterfly after a 51 per cent rise.

At the wrong end of the top ten were the Red Admiral and the Small Tortoiseshell. The latter has lost three-quarters of its UK population since the 1970s and it suffered its worst big butterfly count on record with numbers down by a third compared to the same period in 2017.

The Red Admiral had a remarkable fall from grace. It was 73 per cent down on the high numbers recorded in 2017, when it came 2nd overall. It finished in ninth place. While the Comma, a bright orange butterfly, fell out of the top ten with numbers down 40 per cent year on year.

But the reasons for the successes and declines are not clear cut. Weather, both the hot summer and the cold winter, hatch periods and parasites may have played a part in the ups and downs of species.

Mr Fox said: “It’s disappointing to see the Small Tortoiseshell continue to decline. It’s been such a nice summer when many butterfly species are doing well. If it can’t do well in a summer like the one we’ve just had that doesn’t bode particularly well. We expect butterflies to go down in a miserable British summer but when we’ve had a good summer you expect them to bounce back a bit.”

But he stressed that the three-week count was a short time frame and that data needed to compared with counts from regularly watched sites.

Mr Fox added: “My feeling is it was a good summer for butterflies on average, although some species didn’t do well. The Big Butterfly Count results don’t fully capture everything. When we look back next year, with all the data at our fingertips, we will see it was a good summer for butterflies.”

The Big Butterfly Count will return next summer. Big Butterfly Count for the results in your area.

Big Butterfly Count 2018 – top 10 species seen

Small White 273,650

Large White 210,665

Gatekeeper 72,877

Peacock 54,287

Meadow Brown 51,899

Common Blue 50,118

Green-veined White 49,515

Speckled Wood 35,294

Red Admiral 33,508

Small Tortoiseshell 23,210