Helping conserve endangered butterflies

Composite image in three sections. Left: a butterfly sits on a leaf, with its wings folded up to show its brown, cream and white natural markings and the two green markings made by a researcher to identify the individual. Right: a butterfly with orange and brown chequerboard markings sits on someone's hand. Centre: smartly dressed researchers Dr Rosa Menendez and Dr Andy Wilby stand in front of a large butterfly and moth poster holding their award and certificate.

A ground-breaking scheme which brings together student researchers, land-managers and conservation organisations to improve the viability of some of the UK’s most endangered butterflies has won the two Lancaster ecologists the 2019 Marsh Award for Promotion of Lepidoptera Conservation. The Marsh Awards recognise the “outstanding contribution of…people who are committed to social, cultural and environmental causes.”

For the last ten years, Dr Rosa Menendez Martinez and Dr Andrew Wilby have been working with Butterfly Conservation, placing student researchers in local nature reserves to carry out field research to help improve habitat management. This offers the reserve managers the opportunity to do field work that they can’t resource themselves while enabling students to do the research required for their degree in a setting where they can make a real difference.

“The managers of the reserve get really good strong scientific research for very little money, and we integrate the student projects so they become more than the sum of the parts,” said Andy, whose research focusses on understanding how land-use affects insect communities and biodiversity.

The projects proved so popular with both students and reserve managers that within a few years there were PhD, postgraduate and undergraduate students involved in a range of projects on different reserves around the North West including Warton Crag, Arnside Knott Whitbarrow and Smardale Gill, run by a range of conservation organisations including the RSPB, Cumbria and Lancashire Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust and the Arnside and Silverdale AONB.

 “We decided to take the opportunity to get the students together with Butterfly Conservation and land managers of the sites to feedback their findings to inform changes in land management,” said Rosa, an insect ecologist with a focus on butterflies.

Today this meeting has developed into a bi-annual conference which this spring attracted 170 attendees including Butterfly Conservation members from all over the UK, landowners and managers from reserves, and conservation organisations including the RSPB, National Trusts, Wildlife Trusts and Forestry Commission England.

The Marsh awards praise the conference noting that “the goodwill this has already generated is uplifting and it provides valuable educational and net-working opportunities of real practical benefit. The ‘spin-off’ benefits to Butterfly Conservation and butterfly habitat management are also considerable.”

For example, this year alone a student’s research into the status of Scotch Argus at Smardale Gill provides an excellent example of integrating genetics, field ecology and the direct application to butterfly conservation.”

“There are only two populations of the Scotch Argus left in England,” said Rosa. “Lucy Gunson’s Masters by Research project showed that the English populations of this butterfly are genetically different from the Scottish populations. This work has informed the creation of a working group with Butterfly Conservation, Cumbria Wildlife Trust, National Trust and Natural England to consider how to maintain the English populations.”

Other student projects have also led directly to changes in habitat management.

 “Research done on Warton Crag by our masters students, Liz Davidson, Lydia Grubb, Jess Burrows, Emma Hine and Jamal Kabir, showed how pearl bordered fritillary butterflies were getting isolated in small patches of breeding habitat and rarely travelled between them: so the reserve managers have put a lot of effort into clearing scrub to increase the amount of habitat and to make corridors between the breeding areas,” said Andy.

Student researchers are now monitoring the impact of management changes to see how they are working in practice, while PhD student Alex Blomfield extends the fritillary work to sites across the Morecambe Bay area.

“Even though our research is local, many of species are nationally important and include some of most threatened species in country, so it can influence how butterfly conservation protects these species nationally,” said Rosa.

Martin Wain, from Butterfly Conservation, said: “It’s been an absolute delight to work with Andy, Rosa and their first class students. They consistently produce excellent studies on our local rare and threatened butterflies and moths. Each study gives us a piece of the puzzle that helps us to manage for these species in a rapidly changing environment.”

“The other big positive of this approach is that the conference gives students the opportunity to give a research presentation at a very early stage in their career,” said Andy. “For an undergraduate to present their research at a conference with 170 attendees is a fantastic learning experience.”

The experience has helped students when they graduate, with three recently going on to do PhDs in the subject area, and others going on to work as an ecological consultant, a researcher for the BBC Autumnwatch programme and a teacher. The students keep in touch with each other and with Andy and Rosa, creating a continuing research community.

The Lancaster approach is now being taken up as a model of how universities can engage with butterfly conservation locally. Salford University held a feedback conference, together with other north-west Universities, including Lancaster, a few weeks ago. The Lancaster scheme is continuing to grow and to develop its research programme.

“We have a whole list of projects suggested by Butterfly Conservation, the Cumbria Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and the National Trust. And we have follow-up projects arising from our own research. We now have students doing research into moths as well as butterflies; we recently won the University Moth Challenge, led by one of these students, Justine Patten.

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