Extinctions and crisis alarm Europe's butterfly experts

A dire picture emerged at a summit of top butterfly experts held at Laufen, Germany. Several countries reported the extinction of 10 or more butterfly species within their national boundaries. For the first time it has been confirmed that a European butterfly, the Madeiran Large White, has suffered global extinction

The gathering also heard disaster stories including from Bulgaria where internationally important butterfly sites are being destroyed along the “Silver Coast” to make way for tourist resorts, ski development, and golf courses. Changes in farming practices are also causing concern.

The conservationists vowed to press for action from the EU and from national governments. They will work together under the newly formed umbrella organisation Butterfly Conservation Europe, which will co-ordinate action across the entire continent.

There has been awareness of a problem in Britain for some time. It is nearly 40 years since naturalists, alarmed by a marked drop in butterfly numbers as the result of new farming and forestry practices, established the charity Butterfly Conservation.

However, latest statistics indicate that at least six countries are facing an even worse crisis than Britain.

Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands fare worst in a table based on the number of species that have either seriously declined or have become extinct. Germany is not far behind followed by Slovakia and then Latvia, confirming that the problem extends from the Baltic the Balkans.

Martin Warren, Chief Executive of Butterfly Conservation and Chairman of Butterfly Conservation Europe, said: “More and more countries are adopting improved ways of recording butterfly numbers, and there has been improved analysis of existing data, using methods pioneered in Britain. This new data points to a very serious problem.”

He added: “This crisis isn’t just confined to the heavily populated countries of northern Europe. Turkey is next in the list after Britain, and even the Ukraine has suffered numerous extinctions.”

Dr Warren has written a book in collaboration with Chris van Swaay, his counterpart at Dutch Butterfly Conservation, identifying 400-plus Prime Butterfly Areas from Ireland’s Atlantic coast to the Urals.

The butterfly experts plan to focus efforts on these areas, which cover almost two per cent of the land area of Europe. They are also seeking final confirmation from the EU that it acknowledges butterflies as indicators of what is happening to the environment.

Dr Warren said: “Patterns of butterfly behaviour are already telling us much about global warming and climate change. They are not just beautiful – they are going to be increasingly important.”