European butterflies face extinction, landscapes lack large herbivores

2011 - 04 - 08
European butterflies face

European nature is losing its most precious jewels. In many parts of the continent, butterflies are becoming extinct. Nine percent of European butterflies are threatened with extinction, whilst a third of some four hundred and eighty two European butterfly species have experienced a decline in their population.

What is the reason for this? Intensive farming on one hand, climate change, intensive tourism and abandonment of farmland on the other. That is why butterflies are losing their natural habitat, their flowery meadows.

Large grassland habitats existed in Europe long time before the arrival of the first farmers. At the time land was occupied by herds of large herbivores. “In many places, European nature looked like savanna or steppe scattered with shrubs and trees. It resembled European Serengetti,” says Martin Konvicka from the Entomology Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

Many people believe that before the first farmers arrived, Europe was covered by forests. According to experts, it was not quite the case. “Herds of large herbivores created pastures on a large part of the continent and did not allow the trees to form thick growth,” added Martin Konvicka.

It was European bison, aurochs and wild horses that formed the appearance of European landscape. However, in the past centuries, two of these three key species were wiped out by men. Their role was, for a while, substituted by domestic animals. With the depopulation of rural areas and modernization of farming, the numbers of domestic animals started to decline. Meadows were being replaced by forests or fields and butterflies are losing their natural habitat.

In order to save the butterflies, in some locations conservationists mechanically mow the pastures. This is, of course, only possible thanks to costly subsidies that are taken out of the pockets of tax payers. In a long term, less costly measures have to be adopted. “If butterflies are to be saved as well as other species of insect, birds or small mammals, we need to return large herbivores back to European nature,” believes Dalibor Dostal, director of European Wildlife conservation organization.

The European bison has already been released into the wild in Poland, Belarus, Slovakia and Germany; other projects regarding the reintroduction of these animals are being planned in Romania or the Czech Republic. At the same time, there are projects that have been emerging recently, concerning backbreeding the Aurochs or European wildlife horses from primitive domestic breeds where the most genes have been preserved from their ancestors.

“It is in the interest of European nature that the projects continue succesfully. Moreover, in Europe they should be coordinated in such a way that the outcome is one breed of the newly recreated aurochs and one breed of the newly recreated wild horse for the whole continent,” adds Dalibor Dostal.

Nowadays, in contrast to past decades, experts can employ DNA analysis of the deceased wild horses and aurochs. Thanks to that, they can breed animals that are as close to the original species as possible.

Image: Butterfly Chalkhill Blue (Polyommatus coridon). Photo: M. Vojtisek

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