Report into the health of North East butterfly populations

First major study for 25 years traces ups and downs of 33 butterfly species in the North East

Peacock butterfly
Peacock butterfly

For many people, the appearance of the fragile, delicate butterfly is a precious addition to spring and summer.

But familiar species such as the red admiral and painted lady are tougher than they look.

Each spring, red admirals migrate to Britain to avoid summer drought conditions in southern Europe, making use of high-altitude winds to cover distances of up to 3,000km.

Their journey from the Mediterranean takes around five weeks.

Painted lady butterflies leave their overwintering grounds in north Africa in March, arriving in the UK in April, May and June.

In 2009, a total of 7,597 individuals were recorded in the North East.

The migrants breed in Britain and most of the next generation head south on the return migratory trip in the autumn.

Another migrant from the Mediterranean is the clouded yellow.

“That a small insect like a butterfly can fly thousands of kilometres in migration is staggering,” says Dave Stebbings, conservation officer for the North East for Butterfly Conservation.

The migrations feature in the first major report for 25 years on butterfly populations in the North East.

It has been newly published in a book which describes the status, distribution, habitats and future outlook for 33 species that are regularly found in the region and additional information about 17 extinct or migrant species.

It is the result of thousands of hours of survey work by volunteers and compares their findings with older data to assess whether each species is increasing or declining.

The book, Butterflies of North East England, has been produced by the North East branch of the national charity Butterfly Conservation and has been published by the Natural History Society of Northumbria, based at the Great North Museum: Hancock.

Keith Watson Painted lady butterfly
Painted lady butterfly
 

Sponsorship has come from Northumbrian Water and the Durham and Northumberland Wildlife Trusts.

David Stebbings, who lives in Kenton in Newcastle, says: “The fortunes of the region’s butterflies have changed dramatically in 25 years.

“More people than ever are now interested in and record butterflies so our knowledge of their distribution and abundance is greater than ever before. This book uses information gathered by recorders to show the state of the region’s butterflies today.”

Around regional 200 volunteers send in their sightings every year.

Roger Norman, butterfly recorder for Northumberland, says that the number of records for the North East has increased from 2,579 in 1995 to 8,437 in 2000 and 14,000 in 2013.

These sightings, combined with other sources, now total almost a quarter of a million for the North East.

The region has a history of naturalists keeping records of butterflies going back to the 18th Century - and has a variety of habitats for the insects.

The large heath butterfly favours upland peat bogs and Northumberland has more colonies of this species than any county in England.

The magnesian limestone belt along the County Durham coast is the stronghold of the northern brown argus, which depends on the common rock rose which grows on the limestone soil.

Woodland and coastal sand dunes offer more habitats, as do former industrial sites where flowering plants do well on the thin soils.

These include old railway paths which are now walk and cycleways, former colliery and opencast sites and quarries.

Records from the 19th Century show that several species were common in the North East then vanished, but in recent years have returned.

Among the comeback kings is the orange-tip, recorded in the 18th Century in Northumberland, but which had disappeared by the 1920s. It began its revival in the 1960s.

The wall butterfly was common in the early 19th Century, became rare but by 1982 had returned to all of its former range.

The speckled wood was noted as being widespread in the 1840s but was locally extinct by the end of the century.

Back it came, with 558 individuals being recorded in 2006 in County Durham. In another four years it reached Berwick and in 2011 3,383 were logged.

Alex Kekewic A Red Admiral butterfly
A Red Admiral butterfly
 

The once common comma butterfly, recorded in 1769 by the Rev John Wallis in Simonburn in Northumberland, became a rarity but recolonised the region in less than a decade, with 1,267 noted last year.

The peacock butterfly went from being common up until the 1820s to very rare, but is now one of the most abundant in the region.

Three species have arrived in the North East since the 1980s which were never previously recorded - the small skipper, white-letter hairstreak and the brown argus.

Climate change may be a factor and Durham University has conducted experimental projects with two species.

To test how rapidly species could colonise new areas in response to climate change, the university released 600 small skippers in Kyloe Quarry in north Northumberland, 35km north of their range.

Not only has the population grown, it has spread to suitable habitat nearby.

The marbled white, a common species in the south of England, was introduced into Wingate Quarry in County Durham, 65km above its range. The population grew from 500 to 800 in 13 years. The most common species in the North East are the “cabbage white” butterflies - the large white and the small white - and the green veined white.

Butterflies of North East England is £5 (plus £1.50 p&p) from the Natural History Society of Northumbria 0191 208 2790 or nhsn@ncl.ac.uk

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