Big Butterfly Count in the Garden


Gardens can be great places for wildlife. I certainly like to think that there are quite a few Small Tortoiseshells and Red Admirals that will make it through this winter on the fat they laid down feasting on the flowers in my garden and neighbouring plots in the last few months. 

Whatever the biological links between our flower beds and borders and the success of local butterflies, it is undoubtedly true that gardens are very important for the relationship between people and butterflies. This is where most of us encounter butterflies in our daily routine and for many, the setting of formative childhood experiences with these captivating insects. It’s no surprise then that the majority of Big Butterfly Count participants choose to spend their 15 minutes searching for butterflies in their own gardens. 

Comma in garden

Butterflies bounced back this summer following an awful 2012. The average number of butterflies seen during each Big Butterfly Count in 2013 increased by 80% compared to 2012. This year, an average Count revealed 23 individual butterflies and moths (of the 21 target species), compared to only 13 in 2012.

Nowhere was this increase more apparent than in the UK’s gardens. It was a noticeable feature of summer 2012 that gardens seemed bereft of butterflies, whereas fields, woods and other parts of the countryside held a greater abundance. The average Big Butterfly Count in a garden during 2012 recorded just five individuals, compared with 20 or more per Count in fields, woods or other rural habitats.

This summer saw a huge improvement in our gardens, thanks to the fine weather and recovering butterfly populations. In Big Butterfly Count 2013, 17 individual insects were seen on average during garden Counts – more than three-times as many as last year.

The average abundance of target butterflies and moths increased in other habitat types too but none by as big a margin as in our gardens. In woodland the number of butterflies counted in 2013 was only just over half as much again as in 2012.

Not surprisingly, Big Butterfly Counts undertaken in gardens tend to record fewer butterflies than those undertaken in the wider countryside. Although many of the target species are regular visitors to gardens, they usually breed in other habitats and abundance tends to be much higher in breeding colonies. 

Boy butterfly counting

But gardens make a massive contribution to Big Butterfly Count. Two thirds of all Counts undertaken in 2013 were in gardens and half of the 830,000 individual butterflies and moths recorded were from garden Counts. So, while there may be relatively few butterflies in gardens compared to other habitats, garden butterflies play a crucial role in taking nature’s pulse through Big Butterfly Count each year.

For particular species, garden Counts made up a high proportion of the total abundance recorded. During Big Butterfly Count 2013, 74% of Peacock butterflies, 71% of Painted Ladies, 67% of Red Admirals and 64% of Small Tortoiseshells were recorded in gardens. But, as the majority of Counts were undertaken in gardens, this is perhaps not surprising. When the high number of garden Counts is taken into account, only the Peacock and Painted Lady were more abundant in gardens last summer than would be expected. At the other end of the spectrum, only 8% of all Marbled White individuals and 10% of Six-spot Burnets were recorded in gardens during Big Butterfly Count 2013, in spite of the preponderance of garden Counts.

Although Big Butterfly Count is not specifically a garden survey, it is providing a lot of useful and interesting information about butterflies in our gardens.  

Richard Fox, Surveys Manager.