European butterflies on brink

Almost one in ten species of European butterflies (37 species) are under threat of extinction and almost one-third are declining according to a major new report from IUCN and Butterfly Conservation Europe.

A further 10% are close to being threatened and one species, the Madeiran Large White, is probably extinct, not have been seen for 20 years.

Because butterflies are good indicators of biodiversity, the results indicate a serious crisis for Europe’s wildlife. Around one-third of all European butterfly species are unique to Europe and the report shows that 15 of these are now globally threatened.

The main factor causing the declines has been the extensive loss of key habitats such as flower-rich grassland and wetlands, due to agricultural intensification. However, changes in habitat management and abandonment of pastures in mountain areas have taken their toll.

Over half of European butterflies rely on traditional grazing to maintain their flower-rich, grassland habitats. Such systems are being abandoned on a massive scale as they cannot compete economically with modern, highly intensive agriculture. Climate change is thought to be a serious future threat to many species.

Among the most endangered species are the Danube Clouded Yellow, now thought to be confined to a few sites in Romania, and the Violet Copper, a beautiful wetland species that has undergone drastic declines in many countries.

The only British species on the Endangered list is the Large Blue, which become extinct here in 1979 but has since been successfully re-introduced. It is declining rapidly in every other country where it occurs in Europe.

Two other British butterflies are in serious decline at a European level (classed as Near Threatened): the Duke of Burgundy and Lulworth Skipper. Both had their worst ever year in Britain last year, declining by 65% and 87% respectively since 2000.

Dr Martin Warren, Chief Executive of Butterfly Conservation and one of the report’s authors said “The rapid decline of so many species is extremely worrying.

"They point to a major loss of wildlife and wild habitats across Europe. Far more effort is needed to support the traditional farming systems on which many species depend and protect key areas from development.”

The new Red List of European butterflies was produced by a team of over 50 experts from countries across Europe, co-ordinated by Butterfly Conservation Europe and IUCN. Europe has an exceptionally rich butterfly fauna comprising 435 resident species, including spectacular species like the Apollo and Swallowtail.