Dr Nigel Bourn, Chief Scientist at Butterfly Conservation, has been a conservationist his entire life and spent the last five decades studying butterflies. 

We met with Nigel to find out more about his role at Butterfly Conservation and why the work of researching butterflies and moths is so critical.

Please tell us about your role with Butterfly Conservation

I’m currently the Chief Scientist at Butterfly Conservation so I oversee the research work that we do.

There are three teams within my job responsibilities. I oversee the Applied Ecology Team whose job is to find out what’s causing species to decline and what we can do to fix it. They’re really spending a lot of time on species that are at the bottom of the species recovery curve, the ones we know very little about currently. This requires great field skills and patience as was demonstrated by the recent discovery of Speckled Footman larvae after many years of thankless work. Secondly, there’s the Recording and Monitoring team who oversee our data collection and management, a huge task with over 3,000 sites monitored and millions of distribution records needing processed every year.  And lastly, there’s the Research team, which overlaps with those two other teams really. The four of us in the Research team analyse data and undertake research and work collaboratively with our partners in Universities and Research Institutes like the UK Centre of Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH). This has become very varied over the last few years with Emily (Dennis) leading on innovations in statistical methods and trend analysis while Richard (Fox) and Lisbeth (Hordley) leading on the research analysis of the data. The recent cool-adapted moths paper is a fantastic example of how the team are expanding our research. 

What research are you currently working on?

It’s very varied. I’ve been involved at looking at the Lulworth Skipper since I started working for Butterfly Conservation in 1996 when I wrote a species recovery action plan for it. More recently, we’re starting a new research collaboration with UKCEH on genomes and Lepidopteran susceptibility to the next generation of pesticides. We’ll be looking at being able to predict whether species are more susceptible to pesticides because of their genetic makeup. While slightly outside my comfort zone as an ecologist it’s a fascinating area that has the potential to transform the way pesticides are licensed going forward. A crucial policy area for us. 

I’m also heavily involved in the co-supervision of several PhD students including two who are researching the Chequered Skipper reintroduction. One student is doing marvellous genetic work looking at asking applied questions like ‘how similar to the stock populations is the newly established population in England?’. Another PhD student has just finished his PhD which has been very broad, ranging from museum collections and historic declines and the population dynamics of the introduced population (using novel technics). 

Chequered Skipper butterfly - Dave James
What has been the most exciting part of your time at Butterfly Conservation?

I have been at BC 27 years and I’ve loved every minute of it. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved as an organisation in that time. 

But if I had to single out an area of work, I think I am most proud of the work on landscape-scale conservation. In the late 1990s I was working closely with Jeremy Thomas, then of CEH Dorset, to gather the evidence that habitat quality was as significant as site area and connectivity to butterfly population persistence in the landscape, and then a few years later with Thomas Merckx at Oxford University on farmland moth species. I think that body of research contributed significantly to the evidence for the need for landscape-scale conservation and helped influence the development and design of several of our earliest large projects like the SE Woodlands project, (led by Dan Hoare) the culm grasslands project (led by Martin Warren) and the Two Moors project on Dartmoor and Exmoor (led by Caroline Bulman and I). At the same time Sam Ellis was developing projects on Morecambe Bay.  All this conservation work and much besides that BC staff were working on fed into the production of the Landscape-scale report we published in 2012 (Ellis, Bulman, and Bourn). I don’t wish to overstate it but I think it is one of our most influential publications and is still very relevant today.  

I’m proud of these areas because they’ve had an impact. They’ve shaped our and others' work and we see that with Butterfly Conservation’s strategy and the focus on rare species but also landscapes and the building blocks of that approach was set by this work. It’s great to see that it remains a  fundamental part of why BC is different and worth supporting.

What led you to being interested in the science of butterflies and moths?

Was it collecting caterpillars and raising Cabbage Whites, watching them emerge when I was about 8? (I think they were Large Whites but it’s a long time ago). I still think metamorphosis one of the greatest achievements of evolution. Or was it the chance meeting with Martin Warren in a pub in Dorset in 1985? I don’t know really, although the opportunity to study Brown Argus butterflies under the tutorage of Jeremy Thomas soon after that certainly played a hugely important part in my academic and subsequent career. I’ve always been interested…I can’t remember not being a conservationist. And that sounds a bit dull, but I think I just loved butterflies from a very young age so being able to put that together in a career where I’ve worked on the conservation and ecology of them has been a joy. 

Why are butterflies and moths so special to you?

I’ve always thought insects were a fantastically fascinating group and were underappreciated and understudied while butterflies and moths are a particularly attractive order of the arthropods.  I think if you then add the growing awareness of what is today called the biodiversity crisis and the role butterfly recording and monitoring has had in warning us about it. I think they should be special to all of us – full stop! 

Do you have a favourite butterfly or moth species?

I do, but it changes and depends on what mood I’m in. For the sheer joy of seeing it when I do, it has to be the White Admiral. I just think it’s a beautiful butterfly. In flight it’s just magical. But I have also consistently worked on the Heath Fritillary for nearly 30 years, which is bit of a scary thought! It’s a beautiful butterfly and I’m very proud of the work we have done on it over the years so, if I’m in a slightly more nerdy mood I might say the Heath Fritillary. But I do like them all, I don’t think there’s a butterfly that I would dismiss, even the common ones are nice to see.  

Seeing any butterfly cheers me up, the fact that we’re finding evidence that doing counts and being out in the countryside spotting wildlife helps people’s sense of wellbeing and mental health doesn’t surprise me at all because I feel it’s helped me for all my adult life. 

Yellow butterfly with yellow and black spots perches on a pink flower
Heath Fritillary, Tamas Nestor
White admiral, black butterfly with a stripe of white
White Admiral, Iain Leach