Chris Packham, the vice president of Butterfly Conservation, pictured in the Museum's Wildlife Garden.

Chris Packham, the vice president of Butterfly Conservation, pictured in the Museum's Wildlife Garden.

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Big Butterfly Count: Chris Packham on how to save British butterflies

Chris Packham is on a mission to get us all counting butterflies this summer, and for good reason.

Protecting insect species is now an urgent task, with numbers declining at an alarming rate across the world. Butterflies, moths, and other pollinators are particularly threatened, with some suffering dramatic losses. We need all hands on deck to learn more about them and start conserving their habitats.

Turning the tide of biodiversity loss is a big job, and it is one that weighs heavily on Chris' mind.

'I set my alarm clock ever earlier. I get up every day and I work harder. I am 58 years old, I am running out of time,' he says.

'On my watch we've seen catastrophic damage done to the world's environments, catastrophic declines in wildlife populations, growing threats that are impinging on the entire planet's health. I feel a sense of duty to try to sort out as much as possible before my time runs out.'

Species loss is happening in our own backyard. Plenty of British butterflies are in trouble: of the 62 resident species, 23 were recently recorded as regionally extinct or threatened.

One of the best ways that everyone can help is to let researchers know which butterflies live on our doorsteps.

A small tortoiseshell butterfly feeding on buddleia flowers

This pastel-coloured species is the most widespread blue butterfly in Britain. © Peter Broster, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The Big Butterfly Count, the world's largest butterfly survey, has launched for another year, with Chris leading the charge.

A highlight for 2019's count is expected to be an influx of painted lady butterflies to Britain - a phenomenon that only happens once every few years.

In 2009, roughly 11 million painted ladies visited Britain, and huge numbers of the insects have arrived here from Europe again this summer.

The species migrates from north Africa to Europe each year, but it is only occasionally that they make it to Britain in such great numbers.

Alongside these seasonal visitors, there are plenty of other butterfly species to search for right across the country.

An orange and black painted lady on a pink flower.

Painted lady butterflies have black markings plus white and black spots.

Why should we care about insects?

Available evidence supports a tentative estimate of 10% of insect species being threatened globally.

That's not good because insects keep other ecosystems healthy and thriving, and we rely on them for a variety of key food crops. Without insects we'll be in real trouble. And if we don't know how many are out there, we don't know which ones need our help the most. That's where initiatives like the Big Butterfly Count step in.

Getting out into the green space is also fantastic for maintaining mental health. This year, Butterfly Conservation teamed with Mind, the mental health charity, to reflect the link between the natural world and our wellbeing.

Chris says, 'Last year, 100,000 people took part in the Big Butterfly Count, and counted almost a million insects. It's been going for ten years and this allows us to make comparisons year to year.

'We're asking people to go into their patch - their garden, the park, school grounds, wherever - and look at things which they may have walked past and stepped over all their life. So we're opening up the world of wildlife to them.

'That engagement is enormously stimulating. People can enjoy 15 minutes of relative peace and quiet, which is enormously beneficial for our physical and mental health.

'It's about data, it's about getting people in touch with wildlife, and it's about improving people's quality of life. It's a win-win-win.'

Chris also explains that engaging with insects can be a joyful experience - even the species that many find difficult to appreciate, like horseflies.

He said, 'Maybe you've not got down on your hands and knees and really looked at a butterfly…you see butterflies but you never really look at them, get down and look at their anatomy, the structure of that insect in a fundamental way, a childlike way.

'Where young people have an advantage is that their eyes are fresh, and the simple wonder of these insects is more important than their name.

A small copper butterfly specimen from the Isle of Wight

A small copper butterfly specimen from the Isle of Wight, collected in August 1929. It is now in the Museum collection.

How Museums can help

The Museum has a collection of butterflies and moth specimens that numbers in the millions and dates back more than 200 years. These specimens have labels that tell us where and when they were collected.

Museum specimens provide a unique historical perspective on the distribution of biodiversity during a period when humans have had a major impact on the Earth. We have radically changed landscapes through industrialisation, increased consumption of natural resources, pollution and climate change.

Historic records enable researchers to study these specimens and look for patterns and trends in species numbers over long periods of time.

In the past, this vital resource was only available to a handful of scientists and researchers. However, since 2014 the Digital Collections Programme has been digitising the collection, and increasing global access to it through the Data Portal.

So far 4.3 million specimens have been released online. 1.4 million of specimens are insects, with over 60,000 specimens relating to the species being identified as part of the Big Butterfly Count.

Using the label data from these specimens we can pinpoint exactly where and when our historical specimens were collected. You can explore this interactive map to find out what historical specimens were collected in your area. 

A green-veined white butterfly, which is common in grassland and woodland

A green-veined white butterfly, which is common in grassland and woodland

How you can help

The first thing to do is to log your butterfly sightings in the Big Butterfly Count database. The survey is running until the end of August.

Anyone with a garden can plant butterfly-friendly flowers and plants, which will also benefit other pollinators. Buddleia, lilac and honeysuckle are good plants to start with.

Chris says, 'If you are fortunate enough to have a garden, think about how you can cater for insects. Plant a selection of species which provide fuel throughout the year.

'An area of rough garden full of nettles and brambles provides food in the larval stage. Or you can put in specific plants for specific species. We can all do it even with a relatively small patch.'

It's also important to stay positive if you can. Small changes to local environments can make a big difference, even if it doesn't feel like it. In the face of an overwhelming news cycle full of bad news about the environment, positivity is more importance than ever.

Chris adds, 'I am not always positive, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But my mission is to find positivity in all the negativity and to promote that as much as possible.

'Part of that is instilling an interest in younger people so they can take up the baton and continue to do that in the future.'