Dr Richard Fox has been part of Butterfly Conservation for almost 25 years. Richard was originally employed to co-ordinate the Butterflies for the New Millennium Recording Scheme and the production of the Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland and his role has grown from there.
Now Head of Science, we met with Richard to discuss his role with Butterfly Conservation, the importance of recording and collecting data, and his own love of butterflies and moths.
Tell us about your current role with Butterfly Conservation
I head up most of Butterfly Conservation’s recording and monitoring work, which includes developing citizen science projects such as the Big Butterfly Count and looking at new, efficient ways for people to record their own sightings, such as the iRecord Butterflies app.
My role also involves utilising the data that we gather through these schemes, reporting it to the wider world and informing scientific research.
I’ve recently been working with the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology on a new release of the iRecord Butterflies app that will add in day-flying moths and include the ability to record single-species timed counts that can contribute to annual population trends. The new version will also be able to provide feedback to users about their own recording.
It’s important that we make it easy for people to take part in recording their sightings and the app has made it possible for beginners to identify what species they are seeing and improve their awareness of butterflies. There have been over 660,000 records submitted since the app was launched.
Why is it important to record sightings of butterflies and moths?
The data we collect provide the foundation on which almost everything else we do for butterflies and moths is built. Resources for conservation work are limited, so it is important to target the species and landscapes most in need.
Our datasets are so important because they provide a long-term view. We produce trends in abundance and distribution for all butterflies in the UK, and trends in distribution for over 500 month species. We have a 50-year, UK-wide view of how these species are faring. This enables us to prioritise our work but also to encourage everyone else working in conservation, from the government to landowners, to focus their efforts too.
It’s also true that having this solid foundation of scientific evidence greatly improves our ability to communicate what is happening with our lepidoptera. As well as working to conserve species we need to address the root causes of their decline and the data we record have been hugely important in understanding the anthropogenic drivers in the declines of UK butterfly and moth populations.
Our data have been used to examine the impacts of land use change, nitrogen pollution, artificial light at night, pesticides, and climate change. For example, papers based on our data have been cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its regular scientific assessments on climate change.
How have things changed in the last 25 years?
When I joined Butterfly Conservation in 1997 our aim was to produce the Millennium Butterfly Atlas. This was a five-year survey of butterfly distributions across Britain and Ireland. The only previous Atlas had been published in 1984 using data from the 1970s, and we knew there were lots of changes going on. Many species were in decline but there were also some species spreading rapidly. Our understanding of species ecology and habitat management had changed a lot since the early 1980s too. The new Atlas updated all this information and was a big landmark for the start of the new millennium.
Once the Atlas had been completed, we realised what a success the BNM survey had been in terms of mobilising volunteer recorders and gathering data. It represented a real scaling up of Butterfly Conservation’s recording work. So, we decided we shouldn’t stop, and thousands of volunteers have carried on recording through the Butterflies for the New Millennium ever since, amassing over 16 million butterfly sightings.
A major change happened in the mid-2000s when we were successful in getting funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the Moths Count project. This led to a big increase in our communication, training and recording work on moths and created the National Moth Recording Scheme.
Of course, the citizen science projects have also been important for me, with the Big Butterfly Count the biggest of them.
I am proud to have been involved in many long-standing collaborations with universities and research institutes making use of Butterfly Conservation’s data to understand the impact human activities are having on the planet. Our datasets are relevant and robust, and interest in using them continues to grow.
Which are your favourites – butterflies or moths?!
Well, that’s hard because, for me, the experiences are so different! I love wandering around a reserve on a warm, sunny day and seeing lots of butterflies. That’s a wonderful experience. But….I also really enjoy the excitement of moth trapping. Being out at night and not being sure what you’re going to see, and seeing the moths up close. Moths are incredibly diverse, and some species are stunning.
I was into butterflies first, although not from an early age. I was lured to the dark side when one of my colleagues at Butterfly Conservation suggested that I take a moth trap home and use it in my garden. I’ve been hooked on mothing ever since!
2021 was my 20th year mothing, and so I decided to make it a big one and put lots of extra effort into recording as many species as possible. I gave myself a target of recording 500 species and I made far more night-time trips out into the Devon countryside than I usually do, as well as a few trips to Cornwall and Dorset. I really enjoyed going to places I’d not been mothing before.
I smashed my target and ended up with 603 species. My previous best year had recorded 445 species. I even managed to get 88 species that I had never caught before – ‘lifers’ to use the birding term.
Do you have a favourite butterfly or moth species?
I like loads of them, although I have a particularly soft spot for the Comma butterfly and the Mocha moth. Neither are rare, and both can be found in my garden, which might be one of the reasons I like them. I sponsored the Mocha in the Moth Atlas because it’s such a gorgeous species.