The variation and variability of life tell us a lot about the health of our environment. Find out what we learned from our most recent butterfly survey.

It's around this time of the year that many of us will get our first glimpse of a butterfly and with it, the promise of warmer days to come. Look out in particular for the Brimstone, the original butter-coloured fly; its striking sulphur tones make it unmistakable amidst the still drab landscape of early spring.

Our ecology and conservation team monitor butterflies across a number of our sites throughout the season. We do this because butterflies, like birds and bats, are a key wildlife group considered indicators of how healthy our land is.

The majority of butterflies are in trouble. More than three-quarters of the UK's species have declined in number over the last 40 years. Their struggles should be a warning to us all as their declines point towards a wider biodiversity crisis.

We are committed to protecting the wildlife found on our sites, and we are working to make sure our land is suitable for nature and our donkeys' needs as we move forward.

2021 is the third year we have run comprehensive butterfly surveys. Carried out by the team and our volunteers, set routes are walked regularly throughout the season around our Devon sanctuaries, with surveyors recording butterfly species and numbers.

The routes cover many habitats such as donkey paddocks, scrub, grasslands, woodland and hedgerows. This mixture of habitats is good for donkeys and provides a range of food resources, shelter and breeding sites for butterflies.

We found last year that although the lockdown brought significant challenges for all of us, butterflies seemed to thrive. Lockdown meant we had to change our cutting and mowing regimes, enabling wildflowers and insects and butterflies to flourish. We recorded some 8,000 butterflies in 2020 compared to just over 2,000 individuals in 2019. Undisturbed grass is also vital for other insects' different life stages like grasshoppers, hoverflies, lacewings, spiders, and many more.

Butterfly on thistle in meadow
Cricket on meadow grass
Hover fly in wild meadow
Changes to cutting regimes have benefitted a variety of insects at our sites.

We saw more than 20 species across our sites, from the cryptically-coloured comma, the swooping silver-washed fritillary to the painted lady, which undertakes one of the longest migration flights in the insect world.
The meadow brown was the most commonly seen butterfly, with clouds of the grass-loving species seen at times. 

Large congregations of insects attract more birds and bats, which devour many of the biting insects that cause much irritation to our resident donkeys at this time of year.

Simple habitat improvement is hugely important at a time of widespread biodiversity crisis, not only for the thriving plants and animals but for providing a sense of well-being to both people and the resident donkeys who benefit from the enriched environment.