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The Big Butterfly Count

Big butterfly count

At Purple Plover, we love getting involved in citizen science projects. The bird and mammal surveys we carry out in our day job are important for specific locations or time periods, but citizen science means we can contribute to broader, long-term studies. One of our favourite projects is the Big Butterfly Count run every year by Butterfly Conservation. Running from 15th July to 7th of August for 2022, it aims to find out how the UK’s butterflies, and the environment in general, are faring.

What Is Citizen Science?

Citizen science is research carried out either partly or completely by amateur enthusiasts, often in response to a request from professional scientists. Some projects are ongoing schemes that allow members of the public to continually enter sightings to a database. These include the Birdtrack website, organised by the BTO. This monitors bird numbers throughout the UK and Ireland. Others are annual schemes that take a yearly measure of something over a fixed period, such as the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch and the Big Butterfly Count.

Small tortoiseshell
Small tortoiseshells are one of our commoner butterflies

There are, of course, limitations to citizen science. Volunteers may not always provide accurate data, for example, due to a lack of expertise. However, the benefits far outweigh any problems. Many projects are started by conservation charities or science faculties with limited resources. By using an army of volunteers, they can gather far more data than by just using their own staff and budgets. It is also an extremely valuable tool for engaging the public in science. It’s often pointed out that if we don’t know about the world around us, we won’t care about saving it, after all.

Counting Butterflies

Butterfly Conservation has been running the Big Butterfly Count since 2010 and it has proved extremely popular. Over 107, 000 people took part in 2021, contributing valuable information about our butterflies and some of our day-flying moths. Combined with the more intensive surveys of the United Kingdom Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS), researchers can study annual population changes. With over 70% of our butterfly species declining in occurrence since the mid-1970s, this information is needed more than ever.

Big butterfly count brimstone
Brimstone is one of 17 species Butterfly Conservation want you to look for

Keeping track of butterfly numbers is important partly because they are pollinators. Around 75% of crop plants around the world rely on pollinators to fertilise them. Without them we would be in serious trouble. Butterfly caterpillars are also part of the food chain, providing food for a large variety of animals including other insects, frogs, toads, birds and small mammals.

In addition, butterflies are indicators of environment health in general. They respond quickly to any changes in conditions, so show scientists whether ecosystems are healthy or not. Being able to compare their numbers year on year on this scale is therefore vital for conservationists. They can use this data to concentrate their efforts where they are most needed and anticipate future needs.

How to Count

All you need to do to take part in this year’s count is to find a spot to sit and count butterflies for 15 minutes. Butterfly Conservation only asks for numbers of certain target species to reduce the risk of counting errors. There are 17 butterfly and 3 day-flying moth species to look for and record. These include small and large whites, peacocks, red admirals, brimstone butterflies and silver y moths. All are reasonably widespread, which means evidence of their presence or absence at a site is a good indicator of how healthy it is. There is also a handy id chart on the website.

Look out for the handsome gatekeeper butterfly

Pick a bright day as this is when butterflies are more likely to be out and about. You can record from anywhere: your garden, a park, fields or woodland. You can also record more than once over the three weeks, either from the same place or a different site, as long as you submit separate entries for each count. And don’t forget that even if you see no butterflies, this information is just as useful as if you record lots. It could be an indication of issues in the area.

Common blue butterfly
This common blue is sharing a plant with some red soldier beetles

The Big Butterfly Count is a brilliant way to get out and see exactly how well your local area is doing for pollinators. By taking part, you can contribute valuable data to this annual citizen science project. And if that whets your whistle and you want to record even more butterfly species throughout the year, there’s an app for that. The iRecord Butterflies app not only lets you record any butterfly you see at any time, it also helps with identification of any tricky species.