Give dock leaves and thistles protected status to save Britain’s rare butterflies, campaigners urges

Thistles, dock plants and ragwort should be given protected status to save Britain’s rare butterflies, a conservation charity has said.

Butterfly Conservation has joined the campaign to repeal the 1959 Weeds Act, which identifies some plants which are useful to pollinators as “weeds” and allows for their large-scale destruction and prevention of their growth.

Painted Lady butterflies, for example, are reliant on thistles, and the very rare Fiery Clearwing moth lives in the roots of Curled Dock. 

Campaigners have said the legislation is “outdated” and that it drives the destruction of wildflowers which would otherwise have greater protection. 

The Act aims to prevent the spread of the Broad Leaved Dock, Common Ragwort, Creeping Thistle, Curled Dock and the Spear Thistle, and allows the environment secretary or anyone acting on their behalf, to use measures of enforcement to prevent the spread of these weeds on private land. 

Those who do not adhere to the measures are liable to a £1,000 fine. 

A beautiful Cinnabar Moth

A beautiful Cinnabar Moth

Credit:
Moment Open

However, Butterfly Conservation argues that these plants are vital to butterflies and moths, as many of our rare breeds which rely on docks and thistles are in decline.

Many butterflies which are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 have their caterpillars destroyed by the Weeds Act. This has been labelled by campaigners as a “bizarre situation”.

Dr Phil Sterling of Butterfly Conservation said: “Butterflies, moths and other pollinating insects are undergoing very worrying declines and the Weeds Act contributes to destruction of the wildflowers on which they depend.

“For example, the Fiery Clearwing moth lives in the roots of Curled Dock. This is a particularly rare moth and specially protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, yet the principle food for the caterpillar is on the list of plants in the Weeds Act. It’s a bizarre situation. Indeed, there are over 80 different species of moth whose caterpillars eat the leaves of docks.

A perched Garden Tiger Moth.

A perched Garden Tiger Moth.

Credit:
 Moment Open/ Sandra Standbridge

“This summer we’ve also experienced a once-in-a-decade explosion of Painted Lady butterfly throughout Britain; the caterpillars of this beautiful insect live on the leaves of thistles, which are also covered by the Weeds Act, and the adult butterfly nectars on its flowers. The Act is 70 years old and, frankly, is showing its age so it’s high time we removed it from the statute book. That’s why we are calling on people to sign the petition calling on Parliament to repeal the Act.”

Currently, almost 8,000 people have signed a petition on Parliament’s website, asking for the Act to be repealed.

The petition reads: “Invertebrate populations are undergoing catastrophic declines within the UK – with pollinators amongst the hardest hit. The Weeds Act 1959 was devised when agriculture was less sophisticated than it is today and there was little scientific justification even then for the five native wildflowers it targeted.

“Despite all the changes in modern farming practices, which have rendered obsolete its original justification, the Weeds Act still drives the over-tidiness & sterility of our rural landscapes.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “We are working hard to support our butterflies and other pollinators, which are vital to the diversity of our environment and food production.  

“Since 2011, we have helped to put aside over 150,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat. Our 25 Year Environment Plan commits us to create or restore 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat, outside protected sites as part of a Nature Recovery Network.”

The butterflies and moths at risk

  1. The Fiery Clearwing moth lives in the roots of Curled Dock. This is a particularly rare moth and specially protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, yet the principle food for the caterpillar is on the list of plants in the Weeds Act.
  2. Small Copper butterfly – caterpillar lives on the leaves of docks, preferring the plants that are small and growing in field margins and rough ground
  3. Garden Tiger moth – caterpillar (known as the ‘woolly bear’ as it is so hairy) feeds on docks and other low growing plants – this moth has declined in abundance severely in the last 40 or so years and the removing weeds in the countryside is likely to be part of its problem
  4. Burnished Brass moth – caterpillar feeds on a wide range of low growing plants including thistles. A beautiful moth with a metallic sheen
  5. Cinnabar moth – the one whose caterpillars are like a yellow-and-black stripy jersey – they live on the leaves of ragworts. This moth has declined significantly in the past 40 or so years

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