Rewilding for Butterflies and Moths

Rewilding for Butterflies and Moths

In the tidal wave of gloom, doom and dreadfulness I personally find myself often crushed entirely by the weight of what’s wrong with the world. I find myself feeling helpless, useless and worthless, beating myself up over existing and consuming like a Westerner. Much of what we’re urged to do is couched in DON’Ts. Don’t fly, don’t have an SUV, don’t buy X, don’t have children. Sometimes it makes me feel like removing myself from the equation entirely, because it’s impossible with the DON’Ts to even begin to come close to being carbon neutral.

Rewilding is a buzz-word that has attracted both criticism and praise. It’s quite a Zen sort of thing, because the practise of rewilding is something that is very active but in a way that can look like doing nothing. Not hauling up the dandelions in your lawn might to some look like laziness but it’s a conscious decision based on a deeper understanding of ecology. To spend time in careful, conscious, loving observation of a natural space is a radical act that to someone outside may look like doing nothing. Sitting, watching, waiting, making notes of what you see and then thinking deeply about it does not have the drama of chainsaws and spades. The act of letting things be is one that is counter-cultural in a way that baffles people. We are brought up with a colonial, saviour-complex mentality that infiltrates our existence: our patch cannot possibly manage without our interventions. We must treat our lawns and destroy the cockchafer and daddy-long-legs larvae that eat the roots of our grass or we’ll have no bowling-green-smooth expanses to admire from afar. The fact that a garden that encourages the presence of starlings (among others) to peck in squadrons of downed murmurrations will reduce the burden of those larvae and the presence of bat-roosts and swift boxes locally will thin the population of the adult insects. It’s about balance.

One of the things people are happy to do in their gardens is to plant flowers that encourage pollinators like bees and butterflies. Growing fruit and veg in your garden benefits from having such critters around, which is why, I suspect, that many do it: the collateral benefit to the self. Contrary to popular belief the honey bee is not endangered. It’s the other sorts of bee that is. Not to mention the wasps that everyone loves to hate. But butterflies are struggling. If you grow nectar plants, you may have noticed a reduction in the range and numbers. That’s because they need a lot more than just nectar. The adult butterfly we love to see is the final stage of a complex life cycle. At the point we see them, yes, they need nectar but they also need the food plants their caterpillars need (and these are varied, and species specific. A species that requires jack by the hedge (aka garlic mustard) cannot just decide it’ll eat nettle instead. And while a number of species do eat nettle, there’s a huge number of lepidoptera that lay eggs on grasses. Grasses of different species and heights offer a menu to a great deal more butterfly species than the shaved carpet of monoculture that’s the prized lawn. Since we began to care for our lawn differently, encouraging other types of grasses, reducing how often and how close we mow, we have had a boom of butterflies and moths that are beautiful grass and heathland species and even some woodland species as well. Meadow browns, small coppers(edited as someone informed me I am unlikely to have seen a large copper as they are supposedly extinct in England. I’m still not sure!), skippers (large or small, hard to tell as they are our fastest flying butterflies, heath butterflies, gatekeepers and others, have begun breeding in our garden. Holly blues and the common blue butterfly flit around like pieces of sky. I’ve seen a surge in moth species I’ve never seen before, from the dramatic and colourful like small and large emerald moths and the huge yellow underwing moth, to the cunning and intricate like The Shark that disguises itself as gnarled wood, or the angled shade moth.

The imago stage of butterfly/moth life is also one we forget about. They spend a varying amount of time in chrysalis, hiding in undergrowth, under leaf litter, in dead wood, and close to the ground under the grass. Raking away and burning all that destroys them all. Leaving space for untidiness preserves them. Nature is not tidy. Flowers seldom grow in rows naturally. If you leave these areas of “mess” there are places for birds to forage for invertebrates, to feed themselves and their young, and over time, the balance between too much and too little of those invertebrates will be sorted. You may still get holes in your cabbages but once the ecosystem has built up, you won’t find them reduced to skeletons. You will have the delight of seeing birds, insects, small (and larger) mammals, amphibians, and if you are lucky, reptiles too, in your own backyard. And if everyone who has even a small space (window-boxes and pots are mini nature reserves) changes the way they manage it, that adds an immense amount of space for nature to be and to thrive.

It also helps stop people feeling as if there is nothing they can do to fight the climate crisis. When we forget that we too are part of nature, when we choose to pretend we are above all the creepy-crawlies and the weeds and the vermin (as people will deem invertebrates, wild-plants and the creatures we find troublesome) we doom ourselves.

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