Wednesday, 12 October 2016

godawful environmental news - but I have no-cost solutions

There's been more godawful environmental news this past week: the population of our common toad (bufo bufohas fallen by 70% in 30 years and we've had the worst annual butterfly count since records began.

The national decline in toad population isn't seen in our garden. Although we've no evidence of them breeding at Cordwood, their miniature juveniles were plentiful - ask our guest whose bedroom had to be cleared of them during one summer sleepover! Toads seem to be liking our conditions and are turned up in every corner of the garden.

The reasons for the toads' decline are not yet clear. But changing land use and habitat loss (including land drainage), road deaths, pesticides, reduced invertebrate numbers must all play a part. Toads are probably less likely to breed in garden ponds than frogs and so perhaps have not been able to make use of this resource in the way that frogs and smooth newts have been able to. The fatal fungal disease that is affecting amphibians must also be taking its' toll.
None of these factors play in our six acre site and the toad population remains healthy.

By contrast, we've seen the same decline in numbers of butterflies that others have reported. We've recorded the same number of butterfly species this year as last, but numbers of each species were often very low:

Garden butterflies 2016 
Small copper on aster flowers - October
  1. Brimstone
  2. Orange tip
  3. Peacock
  4. Small tortoiseshell
  5. Painted lady 
  6. Common blue
  7. Holly blue
  8. Speckled wood
  9. Red admiral
  10. Green veined white
  11. Small white
  12. Large white 
  13. Meadow Brown
  14. Ringlet
  15. Gatekeeper 
  16. Small skipper
  17. Comma 
  18. Small copper 
Of course, for most of us in the UK the spring and early summer were dismal from a weather perspective - and this must have affected early-flying butterflies. August and September, by contrast provided dry and warm weather that looked ideal for butterflies.

An example of the decline is that of the small copper (pictured). This little gem of a butterfly has been fairly easy to see throughout the summer in previous years. It took an eagle-eyed Linda, during a tour of our prairie beds last week, to spot a couple on the asters. Her photograph is shown - and is the only record we have of small copper this year.  Ringlet was only recorded once and common blue was scarce.
The newly planted 'super buddleia' (three different coloured buddleias in one planting hole) should have been a magnet to butterflies, but even though loaded with flowers didn't live up to it's name of 'butterfly bush'. In this, the first full year of our Prairie Beds the simple flowers of Joe-Pye Weed (eupatorium pupureum), Cone flowers (echinacea spp) and Ice plant (sedum spectabile) to name a few provided lots of nectar in accessible form loved by bumblebees and honey bees but saw very few butterflies enjoying the action.

On the positive side, we have had reasonable numbers of speckled woods and the white butterflies. And meadow browns and small skippers were frequently seen in our enlarged meadow grassland. At the end of the season red admirals and commas appeared in more-or-less usual numbers.

Butterflies are more likely to be affected by factors in surrounding areas than our toad population. Very few of our butterflies would live their entire life-cycle in a garden.

So for the butterfly decline we must probably look at the reduction in their larval food plants due to intensification of farming and use of herbicides and pesticides; fragmentation and loss of habitat; loss of sites for overwintering larvae - and climate change.

We should be careful about demonising our farmers. It is true that they are the agents of massive change in land use and this has undoubtedly been a major factor in the collapse in so many species' numbers. We must remember that farmers are simply doing as we (through our government) demand: they are producing cheap high quality food.

We should take the opportunities that Brexit offers to reshape grants and funding to agriculture.

'No-cost' actions I would immediately take as world leader:
  • measure all government actions against their contribution to biodiversity and sustainability especially environmental and farming policy
  • divert taxpayers money currently given to wealthy landowners for simply owning land to agri-environment and other schemes where there is science to support its impact
  • allow existing hill farm and other subsidies to be used for 'rewilding' schemes to create large areas for wildlife
  • give extra focus within existing funding to connectivity so that isolated habitats can be joined up
  • provide organic farmers financial support to create a 'level playing field' with their intensive neighbours
  • give planners powers and resources to prevent development that adversely affects wildlife
All to be 'measurable' so that the impact of our actions can be properly assessed.

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