British conservationists are ecstatic over what they hope is the return of the Large Tortoiseshell butterfly, thought to be extinct in Britain. The butterfly, once common, dwindled in numbers in the early twentieth century to the point where it disappeared entirely.
Some experts fear that sightings of the Large Tortoiseshell may in fact be of migrants from mainland Europe (where the butterfly is still common), or of escaped specimens from breeders. Conservationists, however, are hopeful that the butterfly is breeding again in England.
Butterflies are excellent indicators of ecosystem health due to their fragility and complex life-cycles. Ecologists often monitor butterflies to assess loss of biodiversity and the disappearance of a particular species is an important ecological indicator.
Several other species of butterfly have been in decline in England in the past century. Butterflies are very sensitive to habitat loss and changes to the food chain. According to the Telegraph the Large Tortoiseshell has suffered from both phenomena; including clearing of its woodland habitat and a reduction of predatory birds, leaving smaller birds to eat butterflies in their caterpillar stage.
Should the Large Tortoiseshell’s return be confirmed, their conservation priority will be classified as high according to Butterfly Conservation – an organization dedicated to protecting butterflies, moths, and their habitat. The butterfly is currently classified as extinct in England.
Martin Warren, Chief Executive at Butterfly Conservation said: “The number of butterflies on the priority endangered list has more than doubled in the last 12 years, rising from 11 butterflies and 53 moths in 2005 to 24 butterflies and 150 moths in 2007. While we celebrate our achievements, we are aware that the pressures on our environment are growing every year and we need to maintain and increase our efforts.”
It may take some time before the return of the Large Tortoiseshell to England can be definitively confirmed, but sightings are on the increase which is a very hopeful sign.