Did you see Wild Isles last night? Did you see the Purple Emperor? Aren’t they amazing?

While His Imperial Majesty may be one of the more spectacular of our woodland lepidoptera there are many butterflies or moths who are dependant on woodland for part of all of their lifecycle. Speckled Wood (the clue is in the name!), Oak Beauty Moth and Dark Crimson Underwing are all woodland specialists and there are numerous others.

The diverse climate and varied geology of Britain have combined to produce a wide range of woodland types and all are capable of supporting butterflies and moths. But woodland lepidoptera are not faring well. Butterfly Conservation has been recording butterflies and moths for over 40 years and the last 30 years data has been part of the UK Government’s Biodiversity Indicators.

This is woodland butterfly data for England


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Long-term and short-term changes in individual species trends for butterflies of the wider countryside in woodland in England, 1990 to 2021

and a more generalised look at moths for Scotland

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Multi-species indicator of change in abundance of moths in Scotland for 1975-2018


The long-term decline of butterflies in woodland in England is thought to be chiefly due to a lack of woodland management and loss of open spaces in woods. For moths in Scotland, habitat loss and degradation is likely to be a key driver of declines including commercial afforestation and associated drainage of blanket peat bog, loss of broad-leaved and mixed woodland habitat; increased deer grazing pressure and the greater fragmentation and isolation of semi-natural habitats.

Across all four UK countries the loss of native trees and woods within the environment has had negative consequences. Climate change is likely to be a principal driver of species range expansions, but there is also evidence of negative impacts for some species.

So what do we need to do if we are to reverse some of these trends?

Protect and restore; our ancient woods are the link back to the original, post Ice Age habitats; ancient and veteran trees can be hundreds of years old and ancient hedgerows can support hundreds of species of plants and animals. We need to make sure that these are in good condition and restore those that are damaged.

Buffer: increased intensive land-management next to woodland can have serious consequences on life inside the wood – from fertiliser or pesticide spray drift, to increased weed burden to livestock incursions. Developing a buffer around the wood edge, be that a thick hedge or species rich grassland, has been shown to result in improved conditions within the wood.

Connect: isolated woods can resemble islands within a hostile sea preventing movement of species. Connections can be in the form of hedges, individual trees, species rich grassland or newly planted woods.

Create: new woods do not have to be planted, natural regeneration can be very effective if allowed to happen. Or using partial planting for species which are not readily available in the surrounding area.

The current status of woodland butterflies and moths does not look good but as the Purple Emperor story shows us, when we take action we can reverse those trends.