Like many people, I found the latest lockdown the toughest and despite being lucky and privileged in a lot of ways, my mental health took a hit and I felt distinctly unmotivated. I needed a personal challenge to push me out of the furrow I’d slipped into and so the 33 Butterflies Challenge seed of thought was sown.
The challenge is largely inspired by Patrick Barkham’s superb book The Butterfly Isles, which charts his epic quest to see all 59 British butterfly species in just one summer. I began to wonder if a similar quest was possible in London and whilst I knew I wouldn’t be able to see all 59 species due to some being restricted to particular habitats not found in the capital, I knew there was a good chance I could see upwards of 30 if we had a ‘good’ summer.
Most of my conservation work and volunteering has been in and around nature reserves across Croydon and Bromley which can only be described as butterfly paradise boroughs – no, really - Croydon might not immediately spring to mind when you imagine meadows bursting with butterflies but thanks to species-rich chalk grassland cutting across the borough, it supports up to 40 different butterfly species in a year. Being surrounded by this abundance in the last couple of years lulled me into a bit of a false sense of security and I initially thought it might be ‘easy’ to see a different butterfly in each of the boroughs but after a little research I realised it was going to be harder than I thought.
I’ll be honest, despite living in London for over seven years, I didn’t even know there were 33 London boroughs and would definitely have lost money if someone had asked me to bet on whether boroughs such as Redbridge and Havering were in London. So, if all else fails on the butterfly front, at least I’ll have a better understanding of London geography.I love a spreadsheet and spend far too much time deciding on colours and layouts for them but with so much information to collate from such a vast area I felt it was time well spent in this case. Thankfully, butterflies are one of the most monitored species in the country, so I have been able to collate data from the following sources:
· UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme – started in 1976, this scheme records insect data on over 2000 sites including many London butterfly transects (weekly butterfly counting walks).
· Butterfly Conservation – the branches of the charity which span London (Herts & Middlesex, Surrey and South West London, Cambs and Essex and Kent & South East London) have records on individual species seen.
· Butterflies for the New Millennium– set up by Butterfly Conservation, this tool, linked the the iRecord app, lets you explore butterfly sightings recorded by members of the public, across the country.
· Websites for individual parks and green spaces have also proved useful as they will often mention particular species which can be found there.
Drawing this all together, I’ve created a mega spreadsheet which cross references the list of species I might see with the parks and greenspaces I might find them in each borough. The species list covers the 40 species I have found records of in London but 12 of those are pretty rare and will prove difficult to find outside of Croydon and Bromley and a further 9 are relatively uncommon in the capital. The loose plan is to try and see the more common species in the inner London boroughs such as Westminster and Camden and rarer species in the outer boroughs such as Croydon and Bromley.
It’s going to be tricky but with a bit of luck, good weather and help from many eyes on the lookout across the capital, I think it’s doable. I’ve loved scavenger hunts since childhood, and this seems like it could be the ultimate urban wildlife mission – wish me luck!