25 July 2017

A double prizewinning graduate shows how changing habitat management could help reverse the decline of some of the UK’s signature butterflies

Alex Blomfield’s fascination with butterflies began while volunteering for the Kent Wildlife Trust as a teenager.

“I realised just how many species there are in the UK, and how important they are,” said Alex, who has just graduated with a First class degree in Ecology and Conservation from Lancaster University.

“The reason I got so interested in butterflies is the idea of them as an environmental indicator. If you can manage the environment right for them, it’s also likely to be good for other species.”

Alex followed his passion during his undergraduate research project, when he did a work placement dissertation, researching how habitat management affected the abundance of two declining butterfly species, the pearl-bordered fritillary (boloria euphrosyne) and the small pearl-bordered fritillary (boloria selene).

He had to work closely with four separate wildlife organisations while doing their fieldwork at the Warton Crag Nature Reserve, 15 miles from the University. It was his successful working relationships with external organisations that won them the Lancaster Environment Centre Innovation Prize for the student who engages best with Enterprise & Business Partnership activities.

The Lancaster Environment Centre Enterprise & Business Partnership Team, which sponsored Alex’s prize, builds links with external organisations for students to work with on their research projects. Alex's project was part funded and co-supervised by Butterfly Conservation.

His hard work and passion for his subject were also recognised when he was also awarded the James Baxter Memorial prize for the student who has shown the most diligence, enthusiasm and progress.

“Being able to do my undergraduate project on two of Britain’s most important butterfly species was brilliant,” said Alex, whose fieldwork examined the impact of conservation management on the two species.

“I was looking at two different sorts of management: cutting down scrub and managing bracken. The actual field work involved setting up plots across the site with vegetation that had been cut at different points in time, and which had different micro-climates.”

He then quantified both the availability of the violets that the lava feed on, and the number of butterflies present in each plot.

He learnt that the two species reacted differently to the different types of management. The pearl-bordered fritillary was doing best in recently cut scrub but didn’t flourish in the bracken, even though the bracken management was being done primarily to help that species.

The smaller butterfly, however, thrived in the bracken but did less well in the managed scrub.

Alex valued the feedback and support he got from staff at Warton Crag, and hopes his findings, alongside fieldwork being done by two Lancaster University masters students, will feed into the conservation management of the site.

“They are thinking of reviewing their bracken management, and cutting a lot more of the scrub,” Alex said. “It was really great, I felt like I was doing something that could make a difference and had real world implications.”

Alex also developed key skills that will help him find employment: “I developed my species identification, project management and other practical skills, as well as gaining experience working with all the different site managers.

“I had to do a presentation to the site managers, and also gave a presentation to a Butterfly Conference at the University.”

Alex is volunteering with the Scottish Wildlife Trust over the summer, and is hoping to do a masters by research back at the Lancaster Environment Centre this autumn.

“I’m thinking of continuing to research the pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly. It’s fascinating because its habitat requirements are so specific and, though a lot is known about these, there is a knowledge gap about what to do to reverse its decline.”