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Tuesday, 02 September 2014

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Gardeners can help butterfly numbers

AUGUST is the last month of our true summer – a time when the greatest numbers of our butterflies are on the wing, using the nectar from wild and garden flowers to fuel their flight and indeed keep them alive.

Yet sadly there has been a massive decline in butterfly numbers in recent years. Destruction of wild flower habitats, pesticides and growing showy exotic blooms in parks and gardens, often devoid of the essential nectar, have all fuelled the decline.

Even a small garden can find space for candytuft, hemp agrimony, field scabious, ice plant and Michaelmas daisies to attract these colourful fliers. Then there is the butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii, in flower just now – which no butterfly-loving gardener should be without.

I have seen the decline in butterfly numbers visiting the buddleia in my own garden over the past few years, by the crudely scientific approximation of counting the numbers of species and the numbers of individuals there and averaging the results. I would also try to look in at Clints Quarry near Egremont, right at the end of summer, where the red admiral butterflies would be feeding on the rose-pink knapweed flowers, and count them there.

With his background in biology and mathematics, Gregor Mendel in the 1860s carried out the first genetics experiments using the garden pea plant in the monastery gardens at Brunn, in what was then Austria. He was the first person to count his results in a systematic way and, with even more scientific brilliance, the first to select single pairs of contrasting characters, such as tall and dwarf plants, in his experiments.

Over eight years of painstaking research, this humble churchman established the basic laws of heredity, which still hold good today. Even the great Darwin was clueless in throwing light on the mechanism of heredity and sadly Mendel’s work lay neglected for almost 40 years until it was rediscovered in about 1900.

Indeed a salutary reminder to Richard Dawkins and those of similar atheistic, secular, mechanistic thinking, that major scientific advance is not solely their prerogative.

Glow-worms can be seen in a number of places in Cumbria, or at least the gaslight-green glow emitted by the underside of the tail segments of the females on dark nights, especially during July and into August.

They have been seen at Hamps fell in south Cumbria, Cliburn near Penrith and Orton near Carlisle. But there will be other places too, especially on the limestone. I managed to photograph the yellow-green glow in close-up one pitch dark night, by opening up the time exposure on the camera. I am sure they may occur on limestone areas around West Cumbria – the locality around Clints Quarry is one possible place.

The light energy emitted by the females is due to chemical reactions involving luciferin. The larvae feed on slugs and snails, using a digestive fluid.

Closely related are the soldier beetles, which may be seen on flowers, especially those of hogweed in late summer. Some kinds feed on pollen and nectar, others are carnivorous but cannot pierce the human skin.

In an age dominated by an overemphasis on the visual, it is good to hear the subtle sounds of nature. Barely a few days into April and I am in this pine wood on the Atlantic coast of Portugal. The sound of the sea is lost in silence among the pines. yet in a sunlit glade, a sound of wings beating can be heard. I stand in sheer delight and watch this butterfly, a red admiral, flap around, a gentle sound in the still air. The same kind as we may see in our locality just now – but in sadly lessening numbers.

John Sears is running a funghi walk in Lanthwaite Wood on September 3. Details on 01260 278616.

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