WHEN trying to solve an environmental mystery, it would be helpful if Mother Nature could at least offer some degree of assistance. Butterfly numbers have, generally, been declining in Devon for many years and it has proven impossible to pinpoint why some species are struggling.
Similar to the perplexing fall in the number of bees, popular butterflies like the Small Tortoiseshell are starting to disappear.
And with April being the wettest for a century, followed by the dampest June on record, it is feared butterflies may have suffered poor breeding seasons which could lead to population crashes later this year or next spring.
It's not great news but there are a growing number of people who are committed to the conservation of Lepidoptera.
The Devon branch of Butterfly Conservation was established in 1983 and its membership is now 500-strong.
The group's work is varied from running a number of sites where butterflies and moths can thrive to working with schools to encourage a new generation to think about how they can help.
The branch also runs events throughout the summer and it is at one of these in the grounds of Castle Drogo and under a bright sky, that chairman Roger Bristow expresses his hopes that their work will continue to bear fruit – well, maybe nectar may be more appropriate.
"We've not seen too many butterflies today," he said, "But that's not too surprising given the weather we've had."
He sits surrounded by identification guides and ready-to-colour-in pictures as a steady stream of people arrive to find out more about Butterfly Conservation, peer inside a moth trap or design their own winged insect which are, more often than not, pink.
"There's a handful of species that are doing well in Devon but we're struggling to understand why some are struggling," he adds, "It could be micro-parasites that are doing them harm or man-made changes to the natural environment.
"Strangely, we took on around a mile of now-unused railway line at Lydford in the hope of encouraging fritillary butterflies. Numbers declined after the trains stopped and we eventually realised that the sparks from line had been setting fire to vegetation which encouraged the growth of plants that the caterpillars could feed on.
"Once we understood that, we introduced some caterpillars from a site in Cornwall and the heath fritillary is now doing really well. But now they've all gone from the site in Cornwall so we had to send some caterpillars back."
Whether or not you subscribe to theories about climate change, changing temperatures do seem to be having an impact. A number of species are being seen further north than ever before, while some migrant species such as the Clouded Yellow are starting to survive Devon's winters; normally they are wiped out by the first frost.
"The most important part of our work is to record, and encourage people to record, the butterflies that are being seen in the county," said Roger, "It is only by establishing a proper pattern that we can work to conserve native and visiting species.
"We see our work as being vital for the future of butterflies and we do our best to raise awareness of the plight of the butterfly as over three quarters of our native species are in decline. We are dedicated volunteers, in Devon we manage a few nature reserves and create habitats that are beneficial to butterflies, including using traditional techniques such as coppicing and advising landowners what they can do to help.
"We are also happy to advise people how they can help such as by growing butterfly loving plants."
The often-despised nettle is an important plant for butterflies and moths so if you have an area which could be devoted to the plant, you will be doing butterflies a favour.
"You could also try buddliea, lavender, violets and devil's-bit scabious," said Roger, "Or blackthorn. They should all encourage butterflies into your garden."
A nationwide effort to record butterfly numbers is currently under way as part of the Big Butterfly Count, in partnership with Marks & Spencer, and there's still time to play a part.
Visit www.bigbutterflycount.org where you can submit sightings and download an identification chart, like the one on page 31. Sightings can also be sent to the Devon branch which has recently received a £500 grant from the NFU to help it distribute its branch newsletter and it has also received support from the South Devon Nature Trust.
"It all helps towards our goal of boosting butterfly numbers," said branch member Mary Harold, "And we always need extra help. Conservation work tends to go on in the winter time and we appeal for help with studies such as searching areas of countryside for butterfly eggs the size of a pinhead. Amazingly there are people out there who feel as passionately about the species as we do and are willing to get involved, but more volunteers are always needed."
To find out more about the work of the branch or to record sightings, visit www.devon-butterflies.org.uk, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact 01395 578003.
The branch has organised a butterfly walk on Saturday, August 4 at Branscombe near Seaton.
Anyone wanting to take part is asked to meet at 11am in the Branscombe Mouth car park. It is hoped that the wood white and dingy skipper will be spotted.
For more information, contact John Randall on 01752 309857 or 07753 432061.