Collaborative approaches

Aside

This autumn a collaborative conservation effort began at Robin Hood’s Bay to restore the cliff slope grassland there. It will be followed up with a programme of enhancement management to maintain this important habitat and its species. You can read about it on the excellent Connecting for Nature Blog.

Tree by tree

Ann Pease – Ryevitalise Administration Assistant

On 8 February the local community and members of the public came out in force to show their support for the new Ryevitalise Landscape Partnership – volunteering their time to help us plant trees hundreds of trees at a local farm within a 30m wide buffer strip alongside the River Seph in Bilsdale. It was a fantastic bright and sunny winter’s day as we enjoyed the calm before the arrival of Storm Ciara the next day.

A mixture of native broadleaf trees were planted including oak and alder, as well as a range of shrub species including hazel, crab apple, hawthorn and rowan chosen for their high biodiversity value and food source for local birds and wildlife.

Amy from the Ryevitalise Team - tree planting task Feb 2020. Copyright NYMNPA.

Planting trees alongside rivers helps to stabilise the river’s banks via their extensive root network, and reduces natural erosion processes during high rainfall events when the river is in peak flow. Trees provide habitat, food and shelter for wildlife, and by creating an uneven surface and reducing compaction help to filter runoff from the surrounding landscape which in turn improves water quality by preventing excess sediment and nutrients making their way into the river. Trees create a more naturally functioning system and help restore aquatic habitats, such as sediment-free gravel beds, which are vital for the survival of species such as the white-clawed crayfish, trout and lamprey – all of which can be found within the Rye catchment.

Native White-Clawed Crayfish - copyright Dan Lombard.

To help protect the trees planted Ryevitalise has a funded scheme with the farmer which includes erecting a fence to exclude the livestock and so create a buffer strip between the grazed pasture and the river.  Buffer strips are an important component of a functioning river corridor, which act as superhighways for native invertebrates, birds and mammals.  As well as helping to control pollution and reduce run off, they provide a vital barrier between more intensively managed farm land and the delicate ecosystem of the river.

Tree planting task Feb 2020 - working within the riverbank buffer strip. Copyright NYMNPA.

A team of around 25 enthusiasts – young and old, experienced and novice, passionate conservationists and interested residents – were supplied with hot tea, plenty of cake, and together planted an amazing 300 trees over the course of the morning.

Tree planting task Feb 2020 - more tree planting. Copyright NYMNPA. Tree planting task Feb 2020 - more and more tree planting. Copyright NYMNPA.

Tree planting task Feb 2020 - more, more and more tree planting. Copyright NYMNPA.

This was Ryevitalise’s first public event focussed around climate change and carbon capture. The enthusiasm of the people who attended, their hard work and the difference we made to the area in just a morning combined to make the event a great success!

THE TEAM - tree planting task Feb 2020. Copyright NYMNPA.

The following week members of the National Park Authority’s Explorer Club along with other volunteers spent a day adding an additional 100 trees, with the remaining 400 planted by our amazing team of National Park Authority volunteers on Tuesday 3 March. So overall a very impressive 800 trees have been introduced at this site by the River Seph, providing a big ecological benefit to the river.

The Ryevitalise Landscape Partnership Scheme is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, North York Moors National Park Authority and other partners. It is a four year project aiming to conserve, enhance and restore the natural and cultural heritage of the area, enabling people to reconnect with the history, wildlife and landscape of the River Rye and its tributaries. Our catchment area is a huge 413km2, spanning the western edge of the North York Moors National Park, parts of the Howardian Hills AONB and arable farmland along the Vale of Pickering. We have 16 on the ground projects (19 in total), covering everything from habitat restoration to built heritage and arts related programs.

If this is something you might be interested in getting involved with, we are actively looking for volunteers to help us achieve the aims of our projects. Whether it’s surveying ancient trees, examining historic records, helping at events, wildlife monitoring or outdoor conservation days – we’re sure to have something you will enjoy.  See our current volunteering opportunities for more details or email us.

Our project officially launches this Spring Bank Holiday (25 May), with a week long schedule of events throughout the catchment area showcasing how fantastic our rivers, wildlife and landscapes are. Fun and informative events will be held right across the catchment highlighting what varied landscapes and communities we have in the Ryevitalise area.

If you would like to be kept up to date with the Ryevitalise Landscape Partnership Scheme, its events and opportunities, send the Team an email to subscribe to our mailing list.

Pond Purr-fect!

Richard Baines – North Yorkshire Turtle Dove Project Officer

There is something magical about ponds: the mystery of what’s lurking in the depths, the tranquility of water and the constantly changing scene as many types of wildlife come and go on a fleeting visit or stay on to take full advantage of the precious habitats provided.

Turtle doves are no different from every other bird on the planet – they need water to survive. During the summer when our doves are raising a brood of chicks or squabs, finding water becomes even more important. Turtle doves feed crop milk to their small chicks in the nest in the first four days of their life. The milk is made from secretions from a lining in the crop. After four days the milk is mixed with regurgitated food and slowly changed to solid food as they become older.

That’s why through our Turtle Dove Project we have been keen on providing water sources – in particular now during the winter before our turtle doves return in the spring. This post celebrates one local farmer who has been keen on restoring his dew pond for a long time in the south west corner of the North York Moors and we were very pleased to assist his aim with a bit of project funding, especially as there were turtle doves recorded on the farm in 2019.

Over 100 years ago there were many dew ponds across the landscape. Originally used for livestock to drink from and created at sites which naturally collected water, many of the older ponds have now vanished as farming systems have changed and the ponds have dried up.

This is the story of the recent dew pond restoration revealed through photography…

NY Turtle Dove Project - dew pond location. Copyright NYMNPA.

Before the pond (the site in summer 2019). The original depression left of the track filled with ruderal vegetation with very little sign of the old pond.

NY Turtle Dove Project - dew pond restoration. Copyright NYMNPA.

Digging the test pit. A major success as we found the old dew pond stone base about three feet below ground.

NY Turtle Dove Project - dew pond restoration. Copyright NYMNPA.

Taking Levels. This to to ensure the pond is created level to the above ground area, a tilting pond will run dry!

NY Turtle Dove Project - dew pond restoration. Copyright NYMNPA.

The first buckets. Spoil was piled up by the side of the site then removed from site using a dumper.

NY Turtle Dove Project - dew pond restoration. Copyright NYMNPA.

The first layer, weed membrane. A membrane helps to prevent vegetation growth into the water tight clay and provides a level  area for laying the clay.

NY Turtle Dove Project - dew pond restoration. Copyright NYMNPA.

The second layer. clay lining. Special ‘puddling clay is brought in to provide the water proof base for the pond. A radio controlled roller is used to compact the clay.

NY Turtle Dove Project - dew pond restoration. Copyright NYMNPA.

The third layer, barley straw . Straw is spread over the clay to reduce algal growth and provide an additional substrate within which essential pond plants can grow.

NY Turtle Dove Project - dew pond restoration. Copyright NYMNPA.

The fourth and final layer, limestone chippings. Used as a traditional protection layer to reduce the risk of clay drying and protect the pond base from the damaging feet of paddling stock animals.

NY Turtle Dove Project - dew pond restoration. Copyright NYMNPA.

The finished pond.

NY Turtle Dove Project - restored dew pond. Copyright NYMNPA.

One week later! After Storm Dennis we have water in the pond.. All we need now is the vegetation to grow back up and of course our doves to come back from Africa! 

Esk ventures

Ryan Harvey – River Esk & Coastal Streams Catchment Partnership Officer

Hi there, I’m Ryan the new Partnership Officer for the River Esk & Coastal Streams Catchment – its part of a Catchment Based Approach and my post is jointly hosted by the National Park Authority and the Yorkshire Esk Rivers Trust (YERT) . I started back in August and what a fantastic experience I’ve had so far. My role is very varied and fulfills a broad range of objectives: liaising with landowners and farmers, managing volunteers, working with partner organisations and carrying out surveys. All this effort is in the hope of benefiting the ecology of the Esk and building strong relationships and partnerships to maintain the ecology into the future.

It all started with the electro fishing season. That meant getting to know our e-fishing volunteers and arranging some refresher training for them. This was a great opportunity for me to meet the team ahead of our actual surveys and set the scene for the coming weeks. Once the work started along with volunteers I had the much appreciated help of Victoria Franklin (our Conservation Trainee) and Ami Carrick (our Ryevitalise Education & Engagement Officer). Electro fishing is a hugely important element of our data collection on the Esk. It allows us to gain a better understanding of our fish species diversity and abundance, in particular migratory species such as salmon (Salmo salar), sea trout (Salmo trutta), European eel (Anguilla anguilla) and lamprey (Lampreta planeri).

Electro fishing on the Esk. Copyright NYMNPA.

Our sites are repeated year on year and we now have a record of each species population over the last six years. This along with a whole suite of other data collecting techniques better informs our next steps and future conservation measures.

We are looking for new electro fishing volunteers for the 2020 season, so if this is something that may interest you please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our Volunteers Team. We can offer all the training you might need.

Another aspect of my role has been working alongside our Pearl Mussel Volunteers who have a long standing history in the National Park; some of its volunteers have been working with us for over 10 years. The volunteers’ work is invaluable because it’s through this group (along with contractors) that we get most of the physical works and restorations done on the river. There are usually volunteer tasks every two weeks at locations along the Esk and in surrounding riparian habitats. Tasks can vary from week to week for instance woodrush and tree planting for bank stabilization and habitat creation, riverbank fencing and repair to help water quality, as well as hedgerow and riverside grassland management to enhance biodiversity. We don’t stop for winter; this year so far we’ve tackled left over Himalayan Balsam pulling/bashing tasks on the upper Esk catchment.

Our 26 existing Riverfly Volunteers have been busy as ever in 2019, providing vital spot data on the Esk’s freshwater invertebrates. This data is crucial as many of our invertebrates are indicator species and being very sensitive they act as useful litmus for water quality and pollution. Many invertebrates are key component of freshwater and riparian food webs and many other species feed on them. Rivers need to be clean for them to thrive and in turn every other species will benefit. The data returns from 2019 have all been highly valuable for us and the national Riverfly Partnership, with most sites showing high levels of target group abundance and a few showing the highest levels in the last three years, which is encouraging news – hopefully this trend continues into 2020!

Riverfly monitoring in the Esk Catchment. Copyright NYMNPA.

Our Adopt a Stream initiative is also a great source of data for the catchment. Another long standing citizen science project, this has volunteers who “take ownership” of given sections of the Esk, which they monitor on a month to month basis. Volunteers note down the general ecology of the site, the state of the river (flow regimes and water levels), any pollution inputs, any litter and invasive non-native species. This allows us, through the eyes of the volunteer, to recognise any apparent issues along the Esk. So if this is something you might be interested in, if you have a favourite walk or spot along the catchment you care about and like to visit frequently, then please get in touch and help us to continue to monitor the ecological health of the Esk Valley.

In addition we are hoping to start addressing some of the remaining in-river obstacles such as weirs, culverts and fords. This work could help towards the restoration of natural river processes and hydrology of the Esk and also importantly aid the passage of migratory fish species, such as salmon, trout, lamprey and eels. Structures can prevent fish species migrating up river to spawning sites and also prevent successful downstream migration of our salmon smolts which, added to the decline of salmon at sea, has further compounded population declines in the catchment in the last few decades. We found extremely low juvenile salmon numbers from our electro fishing surveys; this suggests that the installation of fish passage and fish easements could be a vital part of the continued conservation efforts along the Esk.

Example of an In channel obstacle for fish passage. Copyright NYMNPA.

Lastly but most importantly there are our pearl mussels. The catalyst for all this work over the last decade and into the future is our Freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera) population in the River Esk. We work with land managers as well as our volunteers and contractors to fence river corridors, plant trees/vegetation, stabilise and restore river banks in order to:

  • reduce diffuse pollution because mussels require oligotrophic (low nutrient) conditions, and
  • tackle erosion and sedimentation leading to suspended solids in the river because juvenile mussels require clean gravels with good oxygen circulation.

A strong salmonid population supports good healthy mussel numbers as the fish are crucial to the mussel’s life cycle – the larval form (glochidia) use the fish as hosts by attaching to the gills until large enough to detach and then self sustainably live within the river gravels. This is why we’re so keen on our river obstacle work because we want fish to spawn all the way up the catchment, creating strong, wide spread populations. Helping the fish helps the mussels and the mussels, being bivalves, help clean the river which in turn provides better conditions for our freshwater invertebrates, which then are fed on the by the fish and the cycle continues….

The glochidea phase of the Freshwater Pearl Mussel. Copyright Elizabeth Clements, NYMNPA.

Everything in the river is connected and helping one species will help another, this is why all our conservation work is so important and why partnership and cooperation between our volunteers, land managers and partners is crucial for the future of the River Esk.

Traversing the Esk

Christopher Watt – River Esk Project Officer

Hi there, I’m Chris and I’ve just recently joined the National Park Authority as a River Esk Project Officer, having moved down from Scotland, and seemingly brought the weather with me! My role will involve working with farmers and landowners to implement river restoration techniques that seek to improve the water quality of the River Esk catchment.

Over the last month I have started to piece together the Esk catchment, worked with volunteers in delivering practical tasks and began undertaking fish obstacle river surveys. It has certainly been a varied introduction to the role and area.

Autumn colours in Westeredale. Copyright NYMNPA.

Volunteers braved the drizzly elements back in October to repair a broken fence on the River Esk, near Castleton. Thankfully, the task allowed us to remain on dry land and avoid venturing into the river which was rather swollen after recent heavy rainfall. A bankside tree had fallen and crushed a section of the fence-line, slackening the wire and dislodging posts. The volunteers assisted with installing new posts, including a heavy duty straining post, re-attaching the wires and finally tightening them. The volunteers worked extremely hard and it was a pleasure to meet and work with them. The task was also completed in one afternoon and the sun even came out, which is a bonus!

This task was one of the many on-going works to restore and enhance the riparian habitats of the River Esk. Maintaining riverside fences assists in keeping cattle and sheep away from the bankside vegetation and so causing sediment loading through erosion. Bankside vegetation stabilises the soil and is an important habitat in its own right. The reduction of sediment loading should help improve conditions for conservation priority species such as Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), Sea trout (Salmo trutta) and Freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera) which favour clean, fast-flowing rivers and streams.

In combination to riparian habitat enhancements, we have also been undertaking fish obstacle surveys stretching from Westerdale down  to Goathland. These involve inspecting an assortment of obstructions from weirs, fords and culverts and assessing how severe they impinge on fish migration. At each obstacle the length, width and height are recorded, along with a written assessment of the level of severity the obstacle poses to migrating fish populations.  

Esk Catchment weir after high rainfall event. Copyright NYMNPA.

Due to recent high rainfall, many of these obstacles have been partially or fully submerged, and although looking dramatic, have been just too dangerous to take measurements from. Electro-fishing will also accompany these surveys at a later date to inform us about fish species diversity and abundance at each obstacle. The purpose of these surveys is to update our records on obstructions across the catchment and prioritise where mitigation measures would best be targeted to benefit fish populations of the Esk. Migratory fish are a vital aspect of the biodiversity of the river.

Esk Catchment culvert and ford system. Copyright NYMNPA.

Planting for the future: Part Two

Alasdair Fagan – Woodland Creation Officer

In a previous blog I talked about the importance of collecting and growing on tree seed from the North York Moors and the benefits of a combined genetic approach to planting woodlands to provide them with the best chance of withstanding climate change impacts in the future.

It is now widely accepted that tree planting has a major part to play in helping to offset the emissions contributing to global warming. The UK is committed to reducing carbon emissions by 80% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2050. A recent study by The Crowther Lab of ETH Zurich suggests that a global effort to plant one trillion trees can have a huge potential to tackle climate change. 

The 25 year Environment Plan released in 2018 outlines governmental ambitions to plant 11 million trees in new woodlands by 2021 through national grant schemes such as Countryside Stewardship and the Woodland Carbon Fund administered and regulated by the Forestry Commission.

The sequestration of carbon is one huge benefit provided by trees, but planting trees can have numerous smaller scale advantages too including;

  • Significant benefits to biodiversity
  • Creation of a priority habitat
  • Reducing soil erosion
  • Reducing the flow of water downstream
  • Providing shelter to livestock and game

Which leads me onto Woodland Creation in the North York Moors …

Between 2000 and 2017, this National Park saw the planting of over 150 hectares of low density wood pasture/parkland and over 560 hectares of new native woodland; that equates to the planting of over 622,400 native trees!

Looking forward, we have ambitious targets to create 7,000 hectares of ‘environmentally positive’ new woodland over the next 100 years. This will mean we’d plant over 7 million trees! This will increase woodland cover from 23% to 25% of the National Park.

Skipster Hag - woodland creation project planted in 2012. Copyright NYMNPA.

But we’re not gung-ho about it. Every woodland creation proposal is carefully planned and there are many considerations to be examined and consultations to be carried out during the developmental stages of each individual project. Things to think about include:

  • Existing ecology and habitats
  • Existing archaeology and cultural heritage features and records
  • Current land sse
  • Soils
  • Woodland networks in the landscape
  • Public Access and Rights of Way
  • Landscaping impacts
  • Impacts on groundwater
  • Appropriate species
  • Provenance of seed/trees
  • Future impacts of Climate Change (ESC tool)
  • Tree pests and diseases (chalara, alder rust etc)
  • Land designations (e.g. SSSI, SAC, SPA)
  • Open Access Land
  • Parish Council
  • Inclusion on Public Register
  • Neighbouring landowners
  • Environmental Impact Assessment (if over 2 ha)
  • Services

Planting at Oakley Side, Danby - to extend existing native woodland. Copyright NYMNPA.

Rievaulx - planting to restore ancient wood pasture habitat. Copyright NYMNPA.

Shadow Woodland - woodland plants such as bluebells show us where woodlands used to exist. Copyright NYMNPA.

Each project has its own issues and individualities. Here are three examples of woodland creation projects over the last couple of years.

Cam House, Bilsdale

This woodland creation project in Bilsdale is a large planting scheme of over 15 hectares. There are 17,825 trees planted of 18 different species.

The site varies somewhat in terms of hydrology with some areas being particularly wet. These areas are planted with species that prefer wetter ground (willows and alder) but the majority of the site is planted as diverse oak and hazel woodland, with other species such as birch, holly, wild cherry and crab apple included to provide maximum climate change resilience and benefit for biodiversity.

Aspen has been included to further futureproof the woodland against potential issues such as climate change and disease, after consulting the ecological site classification software for the site. This is an online tool used to calculate what the suitability of particular tree species are to potential planting sites. The tool uses information such as soil wetness, soil PH, wind exposure and climate data to estimate how well trees will grow. It also usefully has a future projections function which is linked to the Met Office’s future climate data, which allows us to try to predict how a changing climate might alter the site and suitability for tree species – some will become less suited to the site and others will become more suitable, such as aspen.

Planting at Cam House, Bilsdale. Copyright NYMNPA.

 Ayton Banks

Ayton Banks is a site that is extensively covered in dense stands of bracken. The landowner’s primary objective for the planting is to sustainably control the bracken long term whilst creating a diverse woodland habitat. 8,610 trees were planted across 5.43 hectares using site appropriate native species such as oak, hazel, birch and rowan.

The wider Ayton Banks site is an historic Alum Works, now a Scheduled Monument. The proposals for woodland planting were carefully developed with the National Park Authority’s Historic Environment Team to ensure that none of the sensitive areas of the monument are influenced by the project.

Planting at Ayton Banks. Copyright NYMNPA.

 Howe End, Danby

This lowland planting project presented the perfect opportunity to work with volunteers and other groups due to its proximity to our National Park Centre at Danby, the ease of access and parking, and the cooperation of the landowner (who is a National Park Volunteer).

3,500 trees were planted over two months by a wide variety of volunteer groups as well as local primary school children, National Park staff and apprentices.

Planting at Howe End, Danby. Copyright NYMNPA.

If you have a potential Woodland Creation project in mind then please visit our website page for more information or contact me via the National Park Office 01439 772700 or by email.

Electrifying activities

Victoria Franklin – Conservation Trainee

Last week some National Park Volunteers (all fully trained) have finally been able to carry out the first electro fishing surveys this year along the River Esk. Delays had been caused by the weather.

The priority are sites up and downstream of the Sewage Treatment Works (STW) and one Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) in the upper catchment. The first day of surveying was at Commondale.

The concept of electro fishing is to collect samples of fish living within the river, the higher the fish count the healthier the river should be. This will also show the type of fish living in our rivers, the cleanliness of the river and theoretically what the invertebrate population is like along that stretch of river.

The river levels had settled down by Thursday meaning the water was back to a slow flow and all the previous rain had made the water clear giving the perfect conditions for electro fishing.

We fished the river in two 50m sections, one upstream and one downstream of water treatment works. This was done using a zig zag motion to ensure that no area was left unfished. Each 50m section was fished three times to ensure a fair population of fish were caught.

Esk electro fishing October 2019. Copyright NYMNPA.

The equipment used to stun the fish is called an electro fisher and consists of a positive charge the anode at the front and a negative charge called the cathode which trails along the back. These are both attached to a battery which is worn by the person conducting the fishing, today it was Volunteer Paul. Both the anode and the cathode must be in the water to cause an electro charge which is what stuns the fish, but don’t worry rubber thigh waders were worn by everyone so the electro pulse did not affect us humans like it did the fish. The rest of us were in charge of catching the stunned fish in nets alongside the anode, which is harder than it looks as the fish soon spring back to life! They are then transferred into a bucket from the nets.

Esk electro fishing October 2019. Copyright NYMNPA.

We set the voltage output at 150- 200 volts which is enough to temporarily stun the fish making them easier to catch in the net. Once the section of river has been fished the data collection begins. The fish are identified – on this day we found 57 trout downstream and 104 upstream with the largest being 180mm and the smallest recorded at 52mm. The information collected will now be analysed before being sent onto Yorkshire Water, they will then compare this with the other locations which are due to be fished over the next few weeks, and that will all help inform management of their sites as necessary.

An amazing day was had by all the volunteers and staff that attended. More data collection will happen in the next few weeks on different sites along the Esk.

Esk electro fishing October 2019 - small trout. Copyright NYMNPA.

Autumn delights

Gallery

This gallery contains 26 photos.

It’s UK Fungus Day today. There are many many different types of fungi – classifications and relationships are still being expounded by experts. Sometimes sparsity of knowledge can be intriguing but with fungi the more knowledge acquired the more fascination … Continue reading

Making Pictures

Nicola White – Land of Iron Film Maker Intern

I’ve spent the past 12 weeks clambering over the North York Moors with my camera, capturing the elements that form the Land of Iron Landscape Partnership Scheme. This adventure has been challenging, hilarious and hot (given the summer we’ve had).

I began with the Combs Wood excavation, bugging the volunteers each morning by crouching on the ground to get the best shot as they dodged their wheelbarrows around me. It was incredible to see them constantly uncovering something new and seeing just how much had been hidden by the nature that surrounded us. See Combs Wood Part 1 – Volunteering, Combs Wood Part 2, and Combs Wood Part 3.

I also got involved with the Warren Moor Mine conservation work this summer. The details of the huge chimney still on site really are incredible. My video focuses on the lime mortar work that the team have completed on the engine beds, as well as all the previous clearing that has taken place during the project in order to preserve the features. It’s impressive to view the impact that Land of Iron has had on this area, and for that reason it’s recorded in my video. See Warren Moor – The Movie

I didn’t just concentrate on the impressive industrial building sights; I’ve also created a video showing the environmental conservation work undergone. From fences and walk ways at Fen Bog to forest work and tree planting across Rosedale, my video illustrates how this work is restoring habitats and encouraging rare species. See what I saw

The final video of my creation sets out to capture the entire essence of the Land of Iron. Focusing on the three main aspects – history, people, environment – this video uses interviews with the core team and footage that I’ve recorded throughout my summer with them, to explain what the programme is all about. See the whole picture …

This summer has been an incredible opportunity to learn and create. The people surrounding and supporting the Land of Iron scheme should receive a medal for all the work they do; constantly typing away on their keyboards in the office or covered in mud down a one-meter deep hole. It’s been a pleasure to dig in the mud with them for such a short time, and I hope I spend all my future summers in a similar way.

Something else … The Land of Iron Landscape Partnership Scheme is approaching its halfway point with building conservation works starting on site and teams of volunteers across the North York Moors helping us care for our fascinating industrial heritage. We’re currently undertaking an EVALUATION SURVEY – this is a really important way to check the scheme is heading in the right direction and achieving what it wants to. Please give us a few minutes of your time to tell us what you think. Your feedback will help shape the next stage of the programme. 

Colouring in the summer

Abi Duffy – Conservation Trainee

Butterfly species are significant indicators for helping us understand the health of the environment and its ecosystems – that’s because butterflies respond rapidly to changes in habitat and climate. By recognising how butterfly populations are faring we can better appreciate how the wider environment is doing.

Butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera) also play a vital function as pollinators, as part of the food chain, and as a particularly beautiful and delicate facet of the natural world.

Small pearl bordered fritillary, North York Moors. Copyright NYMNPA.

In the North York Moors there are widespread generalist butterfly species such as Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae and Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina, but we also have  specialist butterflies such as the Duke of Burgundy Hamearis lucina and the Pearl Bordered Fritillary Boloria euphrosyne (note this is a different species to the Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary Boloria selene which is currently more widespread and also found in the North York Moors). Both the Duke of Burgundy and the Pearl Bordered Fritillary require very specific habitat to survive.

Habitat specialist butterflies are particularly sensitive to change. The Pearl Bordered Fritillary has suffered substantial declines in recent decades and so is now a UK Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Species. Its caterpillars feed upon violets, most often Common Dog Violets, and crucially the violets must be in a hot microclimate in order for the caterpillars to develop successfully over winter. Bracken litter is ideal at creating such a microclimate and so conservation of this species requires grassy habitat where bracken, scrub and violets are all present. In the North York Moors this butterfly species is found in only one location.

Small tortoiseshell, North York Moors. Copyright Abi Duffy, NYMNPA.

The Small Tortoiseshell, as a generalist, can cope with many different habitats but most often where nettles grow in abundance as the caterpillars feed upon the common and small nettle. This butterfly is one of our most widespread species, often glimpsed in gardens, but there is concern for a decline in species numbers recently due to the sensitivity of all butterflies to weather and climate.

Fluctuations in UK butterfly populations are common between years due to the different weather conditions through spring and summer. In 2017, the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS) showed the seventh worst year ever in UKBMS recording because a cold spring and wet summer causing butterfly species to struggle. It is expected that butterfly numbers should do better in 2018 because of the mainly dry summer, so far.

The UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme looks beyond the short term and draws out the trends over time:

  • 57% of butterflies have been declining in abundance since 1976;
  • Both habitat specialist butterfly species and wider countryside species, in general, are declining;
  • Loss of, and the deteriorating condition, of habitats is attributed to declines in habitat specialist butterflies;
  • Encouraging recoveries have been seen in Duke of Burgundy and the Pearl Bordered Fritillary in some locations. Specialist habitat management has helped these species to recover in places;
  • For more widespread generalist butterflies the reasons for declines are not established yet.

Suggested reasons for declines in butterflies include more extreme climatic events, the ongoing loss and fragmentation of meadows, neglect of previously coppiced woodland and the increased use of pesticides. The paving over of gardens is also linked to declines particularly in towns and cities.

Certain lepidopterans, like the Painted Lady butterfly, migrate to follow the sun which is so important to butterflies. The movement and extents of particular species are now altering due to climate changes. Within Britain as the climate warms the extents of particular lepidoptera species are moving north where habitats and habitat connectivity allow.

Ringlet butterfly at Sutton Bank National Park Centre. Copyright Kate Bailey, NYMNPA.

Unimproved grasslands, including meadows, support more species of butterflies than any other single habitat in Britain. Grassland with low grazing or no grazing in the summer months allows wildflowers to flower and, very importantly, to set seed. A balance between grassland and natural scrub is helpful – scrub can provide shelter, respite, breeding areas and also a place for hibernation for butterflies. By managing such sites appropriately, unimproved grassland habitats can help sustain surviving butterflies.

MAD Volunteers clearing away some of the scrub from a Duke of Burgundy site - you can see the patches of primroses which along with cowslips are requirements for the species. Copyright NYMNPA.

But just like for bees, if you’ve got a garden with plants, you can help butterflies too. There are butterfly friendly nectar rich plants such as Buddleia, Lavender, Marjoram and Honeysuckle , and leaving fallen fruit to decay under your fruit trees provides sweet fruit juice for butterflies. If you’re lucky you might get to see a butterfly using its extraordinary tongue-like proboscis to collect the juice.

Peacock butterfly. Copyright Abi Duffy, NYMNPA.

Big Butterfly Count

Butterfly Conservation‘s annual butterfly count runs from 20 July to 12 August this year. The nationwide survey has become the largest butterfly survey in the world.  If you’d like to get involved visit http://www.bigbutterflycount.org/ which has lots of useful information and resources to help you.