I’ve just joined Sir David Attenborough and Joanna Lumley in taking part in the Big Butterfly Count, run by the charity Butterfly Conservation. It only took me 15 minutes and it’s great to know I’ve played as a citizen scientist in the UK annual count to check on the health of our biodiversity.

The Count has now been going for 10 years; so far the statistics tells us that there’s been an overall decline in the number of butterflies in the UK. Climate warming has already affected the distribution of some species; for example the Peacock butterfly is now regularly found in the north of England.

A Holly Blue has recently been seen as far north as Edinburgh. So as the planet warms butterflies are being pushed into new environments – which may not offer the food plants they rely on.

Join in the Big Butterfly Count

The Count takes place at this time of year because most butterflies are at the adult stage of their lifecycle, so more likely to be seen. Anyone can take part, and sightings are welcome from anywhere – parks, gardens, fields or forests. You could do it while you’re out on a walk, or just sitting on a park bench. All you need is 15 minutes to spare on a sunny day at your chosen patch, from now until the 9th August. Even if you don’t see any butterflies or moths you should send your results in – it’s all useful data. You either use the free app to input your results while you’re out and about, or add them online when you get home – easy!

What butterflies could we expect to see in our gardens and parks?

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, the species we’re most likely to see are Red Admiral, Peacock, Brimstone, Painted Lady, Comma, Green-veined White, Small Tortoiseshell, Small Cabbage White and Large Cabbage White. Only these last two cause problems for gardeners – they’re the ones whose caterpillars eat your cabbages! In my garden in Yorkshire I also see the Speckled Wood butterfly quite commonly, because I’m lucky enough to live in an area where there are lots of trees in back gardens so it’s more or less a woodland habitat for butterflies. If you’re not sure which ones you’re seeing, go to http://www.bigbutterflycount.org for a free downloadable identification chart.

Planting for butterflies

So what can we do as individuals to help stem the loss of butterflies? Butterfly Conservation say our gardens are important habitats for butterflies, and that we can make a real difference if we grow more plants which produce food for them – both at the caterpillar stage and for the adult butterflies.

This means growing more nectar-rich garden plants to attract butterflies, not forgetting the caterpillar stage where the developing larvae need the leaves of various garden and native UK plants to get big enough to pupate. You don’t have to give over your garden to wilderness to do this; many of the plants on sale in our garden centres and nurseries are not only great to look at but attract butterflies – and other beneficial insects – too.

Sir David Attenborough, President of Butterfly Conservation, is calling on nature lovers to plant pots in their gardens or window ledges with nectar sources such as nepeta (Catmint), Lavender, Cranesbill, and Echinacea, and easy-to-grow herbs such as marjoram, oregano and thyme. You could also try:

  • Buddleia – a wonderful sight to see covered with Peacock or Red Admiral butterflies in summer, this shrub has many tall, arching sprays of flowers in white, blue or purple
  • Sedum (aka Ice plant) – flowering in high summer, their large, flat multi-flower heads offer great perching space for butterflies to take in nectar
  • Michaelmas daisy or other asters – flowering into autumn, they provide essential nectar later in the butterfly season
  • Wallflowers, especially erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’
  • Eryngiums (aka Sea holly) – there are lots of cultivars of these to choose from
  • Verbena bonariensis – a summer winner in the garden, its many airy spikes of purple colour attracts many types of butterflies but especially Red Admiral
  • Ivy – possibly a surprising choice, but its autumn-flowering means it’s a great late nectar source, especially for Red Admiral and Peacock butterflies, and for bees too
  • Cirsium (aka thistles) – there are a number of lovely cultivated forms of thistle available nowadays, and this plant in all its variants is a major food source for many butterflies including Brimstone, Painted Lady, Comma, Peacock and Fritillery
  • Ajuga (aka Bugle) – this ground-cover plant has short flowering spikes in early summer and is especially popular with Brimstone, Skippers and Painted Lady butterflies.

Want to know more?

The RHS produces a free downloadable list of plants to encourage butterflies at https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/pdfs/plants-for-butterflies

Many wildlife charities such as the RSPB, the Woodland Trust and the National Trust also have information on their websites about butterflies and moths. Or get in touch with your local conservation group or wildlife charity – they may have plants for sale too!

For more information about UK butterflies and the work of the charity Butterfly Conservation go to http://butterfly-conservation.org