Our childhood memories of buddleias laden with red admirals or meadows animated by orange-tips are not imagined or rose-tinted. More than three-quarters of Britain's 59 species have declined over the last 40 years, from common farmland butterflies such as the Essex skipper to our most endangered butterfly, the high brown fritillary, which has suffered a 96 per cent decline since 1976.
Climate change is encouraging new sun-loving species to fly further north into Britain, most notably the exotic long-tailed blue. But some species are struggling to adapt to unpredictable weather and may be killed off by violent storms or droughts. Urban development hasn't helped, either. And while there are projects up and down the country there are steps gardeners can take to make sure their gardens are as butterfly-friendly as possible.
What's causing the butterfly decline?
The biggest reason for the butterfly decline is intensive, industrial agriculture. Flower-rich meadows and wetlands have been drained and ploughed. Planting conifers or leaving woods to become overgrown has hit species that once thrived in sunny clearings. And neonicotinoids, a group of pesticides that have been shown to adversely affect bees, may be a particular problem.
‘It could be the DDT of our current decade,’ says Richard Fox of the charity Butterfly Conservation.
Yet, though it’s easy to despair, a growing army of enthusiasts are bringing many landscapes and butterflies back to life.
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Butterfly success stories
The large blue was the last British butterfly to become extinct, in 1979. Since then, it has been painstakingly restored by Britain's leading lepidopterist, Jeremy Thomas, an Oxford professor, and his fellow ecologist David Simcox, who drove to Scandinavia in an old camper van and collected Swedish specimens. The creatures are now found in carefully managed nature reserves in Somerset and the Cotswolds
A particularly remarkable success story can be found at Knepp country estate, near Horsham, West Sussex. Landowner Charlie Burrell farmed it as an arable and dairy business for 17 years, but a few years ago returned the estate to wood pasture - a traditional mix of meadows, trees and overgrown hedgerows, grazed by deer, long-horned cattle and free-ranging pigs – and 260 acres of wild flowers. ‘It was an economic decision – we couldn't continue as we were,’ says Burrell, 53. The estate is doing better, thanks to wildlife tourism and government payments for good environmental practices, and is teeming with butterflies.
‘We always expected [some] but we didn't expect the purple emperor,’ says Charlie. Matthew Oates, the country's leading expert on this elusive treetop-dwelling butterfly, says Knepp is now the best place for the species in Britain. The naturalist conducts monitoring and butterfly tours at the estate and saw 126 Emperors while taking visitors on a wildlife safari last July – his highest-ever daily total. Thickets of sallow have naturally colonised Knepp's fields, and the purple emperor caterpillar devours the plant.
The estate is also now home to roughly 2% of Britain's nightingale population, as well as the endangered turtle dove. 'Life has come back to the land,’ says Charlie. ‘If you lie down in a secluded spot, everything is moving. The noise around you is the noise of life.'
To lose many more butterflies from our landscapes ‘would be a major fall from grace,’ says Matthew Oates. ‘Imagine a garden or spring wood without songbirds. Then imagine the same place without butterflies. They are integral to the most special places in our countryside and are surprisingly good at making us feel happy.’
As 17th century naturalist John Ray wrote, 'What is the use of butterflies? To adorn the world and delight the eyes of men: to brighten the countryside like so many golden jewels.’
What's the most butterfly-friendly garden plant? The answer is a little painful for many of us.
We usually plant flowers to attract butterflies, and most adult butterflies do replenish their strength by drinking nectar. But it is better to consider introducing plants for when a butterfly is growing – when it's a caterpillar. The caterpillars of five British species – small tortoiseshell, peacock, red admiral, painted lady and comma – will feed on nettle. It must grow in a sunny south- or west-facing bank.
It's hard for some gardeners to tolerate a ‘nettle patch’ because the plant is so quick to spread. One solution is to sink an old bath into the soil, which confines the nettle roots within it.
The best-known butterfly magnet, the buddleia is also known as ‘the butterfly bush’. Most homes can have one now there is a dwarf variety - Buzz - that can be grown in pots and window boxes.
Some varieties, such as the Dartmoor or weyeriana, are more attractive to butterflies than others. Late-flowering buddleia is much more useful to butterflies like small tortoiseshells and peacocks, which drink nectar to build up strength for hibernation. Make your buddleia bloom later by cutting it back hard in April.
Find out how to grow buddleia
Wildflowers in your lawn
Wildflower meadows are increasingly popular but many gardeners still struggle to relinquish a ‘tidy’ lawn. But if you throw away fertilisers and pesticides, and sow native wildflower mixes, you'll instantly have a wildlife-friendly garden and you can sit back and enjoy all your extra free time!
Trim your long lawn on a high cut from September to November. Yellow rattle is a particularly brilliant wild flower because it swamps grass and creates space for more wild varieties.
Ringlets, meadow browns, gatekeepers and large and small skippers are all grass-feeding butterflies. The delightful common blue and small copper also like rough grassland.
Read bout getting started with British wildflowers
Ivy and garlic mustard
Ivy and garlic mustard are two overlooked plants that attract butterflies can grow in almost every small garden.
The holly blue caterpillar feeds on ivy. Don’t cut it back until winter, when these caterpillars will have pupated. Its flowers are also a great source of autumn nectar for red admirals.
Garlic mustard is a food source for the orange-tip, an unmistakable spring butterfly. The plant grows in hedgerows and in shady areas, is easy to control, and is one of those pretty ‘weeds’ you'll grow to love.
This will sound like sacrilege to prize cabbage growers, but why not give one or two of your vegetables over to the butterflies? Large and small white caterpillars devour cabbages, kale and other brassicas, as gardeners are only too aware.
Protect some cabbages with netting then plant a few extra for caterpillars to feed on. You won't be overrun the next year – parasitic wasps periodically attack Large Whites in particular, so their numbers never spiral out-of-control. Butterflies also feed on nasturtiums, so planting these on your vegetable bed is a good deterrent.
It is easy to forget, but some of our most brilliant butterflies live in trees.
If you have a big enough garden, a Wych elm is ideal for white-letter hairstreaks. And almost every mature oak is home to purple hairstreaks. If you live in Sussex or Hampshire, plant a thicket of sallow (goat willow) and you might even attract a spectacular purple emperor to lay eggs in your garden.
Smaller garden? Plant alder buckthorn for the beautiful brimstone – traditionally the first butterfly of the year to emerge in spring.
Native or non-native plants?
Native British species tend to be better for butterflies but non-natives can be great sources of nectar, too.
Cotoneaster is a popular non-native, and fashionable Verbena bonariensis is brilliant. If you prefer native species, butterflies love feeding on marjoram, lavender and traditional Michaelmas daises.
If you've got chalky soils, plant horseshoe vetch, bird's foot trefoil and wild thyme – all beloved of beautiful blue butterflies.
Related: how to grow hardy verbenas
If butterflies visit your garden, one of the most conservation-friendly things to do is to record them. They are the best-studied group of insects in the world, thanks to a small army of volunteer recorders, and all this data gives scientists valuable insights into the impact of agriculture and climate change on not just butterflies, but bees and other insects too. The national charity Butterfly Conservation has user-friendly online recording scheme for garden butterflies: gardenbutterflysurvey.org
Patrick Barkham is the author of The Butterfly Isles