Conservationists are warning that many of our favourite butterflies are disappearing as a major UK-wide species survey gets under way.
Among those that are under threat across Northern Ireland are the small tortoiseshell, once a common sight in our gardens, and the marsh fritillary, which is threatened across Europe.
Only a few individuals have been sighted in Northern Ireland this summer, according to Butterfly Conservation.
Seven out of 10 species of butterfly are in decline in the UK and half are threatened with extinction — and the recent spate of torrential summers has wreaked a severe toll.
Butterfly Conservation president Sir David Attenborough said: “Butterflies are extraordinary, heart-lifting creatures — visions of beauty and visions of summer,
“Butterflies in profusion tell us that all is well with nature. When they decline it's a warning that other wildlife will be soon heading the same way. So with the big butterfly count we will be doing more than just counting butterflies — we'll be taking the pulse of nature.”
The wildlife charity is hoping it can attract 100,000 members of the public to help build a much better picture of the fortunes of our butterflies.
It is urging members of the public to spend a quarter of an hour in a garden, park or field from tomorrow to August 1, and make a note of any butterflies they spot as well as day-flying moths such as the magnificent hummingbird hawkmoth, which is capable of migrating to Northern Ireland from Africa.
Butterfly numbers have plummeted to an all-time low in the last three years as bad summer weather exacerbated long-term threats posed by habitat loss and changes to land management, such as increased intensive farming and conifer plantations over the last 50 years.
In Northern Ireland, the small tortoiseshell is in decline, due to the spread of a parasitic fly which lays its eggs on the butterfly’s food plants.
However, the holly blue has enjoyed different fortunes, benefiting from the recent warm springs to increase in numbers over the past few years.
Butterfly Conservation NI chairman Ian Rippey said it was once only found in Fermanagh and south Down but the past 10 years have seen it spread north and west, and this year it appeared in Co Armagh for the first time. The dark green fritillary has also done well this year, including one sighting of about 200 individuals in Portstewart’s dunes. However, the wall brown which used to be fairly widespread, is declining due to a series of milder winters and is now confined to coastal regions, he said.
Marks & Spencer is urging shoppers to take part in the count and tomorrow staff at its Belfast and Lisburn stores will be handing out guides on how to take part as well as handing out butterfly masks for children.
A new website has been built so that participants can enter records online at www.bigbutterflycount.org, supported by the M&S website which will guide consumers to the count.