The Hidden Butterfly Population

One perk of volunteering for Durham Wildlife Trust is getting the opportunity to see the trust’s nature reserves, every day is a new day and a new potential for visiting another reserve. This past fortnight we’ve visited a couple different nature reserves, one of which I hadn’t even been to.

Situated 1km North of Bishop Middleham Village lies a disused Magnesium Limestone quarry abandoned in the 1930’s. This site is particularly interesting, due to its thin limestone soils and shelter it provides an ideal environment for a wide range of orchids most famously, the Dark Red Helleborine, flowering at it’s best between late June and July.

The site is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (or SSSI for short) due to the abundance of plant life; bird species; moth species and butterfly species which it supports.

Everyone loves seeing a butterfly. Whether it’s at a distance or up-close and personal, they’re beautiful little creatures and so diverse in colouration. Honestly, butterflies freak me out… I’m being honest. I can’t stand them fluttering in my face! I used to work as a Nature Rockz Park Ranger on a Haven site in North Wales and one of my activities was Bug Hunts. Of course, the most popular time of year for the Bug Hunt was when the butterflies were at their peak and we would run around meadows catching them for surveys. I always allowed the children to release the butterflies in case they flew into my face. But surely enough… It’s like the butterflies knew, they’d go straight for my nose! Of course, children and their parents found it hysterical when the Park Ranger was freaking out about a mere butterfly. But regardless of that I adore watching them (from a distance!) and seeing all their beautiful colours.

But what’s so important about butterflies? A small, fragile little creature, what makes them so important for our habitats?

As an indicator species, butterflies serve an important ecosystem value. An indicator species indicates whether an environment or ecosystem is healthy or not. If we have a large presence of butterflies this can indicate a healthy ecosystem. While a lack of butterflies can indicate an unhealthy ecosystem. Being an important part of the food chain along with moths means where ever butterflies and moths flourish, so will their predators whether that be birds, bats or other insectivores. So you get the idea, butterflies are pretty important. Along with their ecosystem value, butterflies serve an economic value… Crazy isn’t it? A little butterfly has an economic value, and I’ll explain why. The most obvious reason links in with the aesthetic value of butterflies, how people love and want to see them. Thousands of butterfly enthusiasts flood nature reserves and national parks all over the world to see rare and special species of butterflies. This travel pumps money into the local communities and provides jobs for many people as butterfly tour guides or shop owners selling butterfly related souvenirs, even the local bus services and hotels benefit. While serving a traditional economic value, some species of butterflies serve a more important role in our economy. Butterflies and moths have developed their own suite of chemical which the use to deter predators or find mates, this chemical has various different potentials for our own benefit. The Meadow Brown for example is a widespread species of butterfly which has been found to possess strong antibiotics in these chemicals. There is so much more I could talk about on the topic of the importance of butterflies, their aesthetic value or their perfect ‘model’ organism properties, I could go on and on… Check out the Butterfly Conservation website if you’d like to learn more about their magnificent creatures.

Records have shown that the butterfly population in Bishop Middleham Quarry nature reserve has declined and we want to stop that. One possibility of the decline is the quarry becoming more shaded as the surrounding foliage encroaches on the butterfly’s environment. Which is where we come into the picture. During our time at Bishop Middleham Quarry, we took to felling all the trees which were shading the environment in the hope that the extra sunlight will help to boost the population.

It was great fun, having been suffering with a bad shoulder for the past few weeks I finally got to use the Chainsaw for most of the day instead of felling one tree. Felling all these trees meant we had a lot of logs and brash, and I mean a lot… And with nowhere to put it. So, we decided to make a small controlled fire to burn away all of the logs and brash so they weren’t making the area look untidy and safe. Of course, due to the site being a SSSI and having thin limestone soil we didn’t want to add nutrients into the soil from the fire so we found a convenient little area to safely burn our logs and brash in a way that it won’t disturb the natural environment.

And now we wait… Hoping the butterfly population will increase once again.

Later on in the week we revisited The Whinnies, our lineal site in Darlington where we have been hedgelaying along the footpath. We’re getting there… Very slowly. But there is over 800m of hedge to carefully lay and tidy so it may be slow but at least its taking shape.

You’re probably thinking all we VROs ever seem to do is go out on the nature reserves and destroy all the trees and shrubs honestly, we’re not that destructive and it’s all essential parts of conservation. So, what happens when we return from task days? We do office work too and odd jobs around Low Barns where our visitor centre is. Last week, we had a little bit of fun dealing with a pony who thought he was Houdini. To help us maintain our sites naturally we have Exmoor Ponies to graze the land naturally. Unfortunately, the ponies seem to think everywhere is fair game to graze and so will graze anywhere they can get to… That’s including outside of their paddocks. One little devil ended up on the wrong side of his paddock and so we unattached the fencing, laid it on the ground for the pony to walk through and attempted to encourage him into his own paddock where his five pals were helping to encourage him very vocally. But no… He was reluctant to cross the fence which was laid flat on the ground covered with grass and moss to hide it. Even his five pals wandered into his side of the fence and ran back out, he ran with them but as soon as he reached the fence he stopped. Eventually all we could do was cut the fence and bring him through the good old-fashioned way.

A big thanks goes to Jess Wilson one of our Volunteer Reserves Officer who writes these regular blogs!