There are more than 2,500 species of moth and around 60 species of butterfly in the UK. Many of these species are great indicators of the health of our ecosystems, are very important pollinators, and are vital in the food chain. Unfortunately, roughly three quarters of moth and butterfly species are in decline in the UK. The main reason for this is due to the loss of flower-rich habitats such as grasslands and wetlands. Other reasons include changes in the management of our gardens, the use of pesticides and also climate change. Read on to find out how you can boost biodiversity in your garden and help moth and butterfly populations.
What can you do to help?
Planting more butterfly and moth friendly plants in your garden will greatly help species and develop wildlife corridors. These corridors allow populations to move across the countryside easier, reach new habitats, and breed with other populations. This is very important as it increases genetic diversity which makes species more resilient.
Planting wildflowers is great for butterflies and moths, as well as many other insects. Native wildflower species offer the greatest resources for butterflies and moths. Below are 10 wildflower species that can support a wide range of butterflies and moths in the UK:
- Red clover – This is a great food plant for short-tailed blue and clouded yellow butterflies and the five-spot burnet moth and mother shipton moth.
- Common Knapweed – This plant is a big favourite of all kinds of butterflies, including common blues, marbled whites, and meadow browns.
- Garlic Mustard – An important food plant for the larvae of the orange tip butterfly, and for the caterpillars of green-veined white butterflies.
- Bird’s-foot trefoil – The common blue butterfly will often lay their eggs on this plant.
- Evening primrose – This is a night scented plant, which is particularly good for moths who feed on plants during the day and at night.
- Yarrow – One of the best producers of nectar in relation to the small amount of space the plant will occupy.
- Ox-eye Daisy – Several species of moths will feed on the roots of this plant.
- Kidney Vetch – A popular plant for the small blue butterfly, a species of conservation concern in East Lothian.
- Dandelion– Provides a good nectar source for many spring flying butterflies. Many caterpillars of moth species will also feed on it.
- Common rock rose – This is the only known food source for caterpillars of the northern brown angus butterfly, a species of conservation concern in East Lothian.
Shrubs and Trees
Most caterpillars will feed on a variety of native trees and shrubs, but some can be restricted to a few specific species. Butterflies and moths will then feed on the nectar of flowers and aphid honeydew found on the leaves of trees and shrubs.
We have put together a list of our top 5 shrubs and trees that you can plant in your garden to attract a wide range of butterfly and moth species.
- Hazel – The caterpillars of the large emerald, the small white wave and the barred umber moths in particular will feed and over-winter on this tree. Nuts are also loved by squirrels and mice while the flowers are great for bees.
- Hawthorn – The flowers of this shrub are a particular favourite of the green hairstreak butterfly. Its dense thick growth also provides great nesting habitat for birds. Their berries are favourites of several species such as blackbird, chaffinches, and redwings.
- Dog rose – This plant is very undemanding and easy to look after. Its fragrant flowers can be seen all through summer and often into autumn providing a longer-term food source for lots of butterflies and moths. It also supports a wide variety of bird species through the winter with their berries.
- Blackthorn – The leaves of blackthorn shrubs are a great foodplant for caterpillars, in particular for rarer species such as the brown hairstreak. Other wildlife benefits from its spring flowers and fruits (as do sloe gin drinkers!).
- Ivy – The flower provides a valuable nectar source in the autumn and is popularly used as a caterpillar food source for the holly blue butterfly.
- Alder – The large emerald moth larvae will feed and over-winter on this tree. Caterpillars of the pebble hook-tip butterfly love to feed on Alder trees. They also overwinter in a cocoon between the leaves.
- Aspen – Some moth species will feed primarily on Aspen, for example, the nationally scarce light orange underwing moth and micro moth species such as the aspen roller and the dark aspen bell.
- Birch –Caterpillars of the pebble hook-tip butterfly feed on Silver Birch. They overwinter in a cocoon between the leaves. Buff-tip moths are well camouflaged against the bark of birch, where they lay their eggs. It also creates perfect shading for grasses, bluebells, wood sorrel, mosses, and violets.
- Oak – Supports more native UK species than any other tree. Purple hairstreak butterflies lay their eggs on the buds of oak trees, and the caterpillars hatch the following spring when the buds burst. Acorns are eaten by several mammals and birds while the leaves and tree support many insects.
- Wild Cherry – Attracts many pollinators with its flowers and a wide variety of birds with its fruits. The leaves of the tree are the main food plant for caterpillars of a variety of moth species such as the brimstone, cherry fruit and cherry bark moths, the short cloaked moth and the orchard ermine moth.
More information on other ways in which you can help butterflies and moths in the UK can be found on websites such as Butterfly Conservation. There you will also find ways in which you can get involved in recording sightings of butterflies and moths, which is vital for conservation work and can be a fun activity.