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Spotty spiders and shiny butterflies boosted by RSPB conservation efforts

Last modified: 05 November 2014

Ladybird spider

Ladybird spiders were thought to be extinct in the UK until being rediscovered in Dorset in 1980.

Image: Ian Hughes

A spider that looks like a ladybird, a plant that resembles plaited hair and a 'greasy' butterfly have been among the conservation success stories on RSPB nature reserves this year. 

The 212 reserves cover over 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres) of important wildlife habitats across the UK. Of the 16,006 species recorded at these sites, 97 per cent are not birds. 

The RSPB monitors a broad range of species, giving nature a helping hand through careful land management. A review of how wildlife has fared on the reserves during 2014 illustrates the variety of issues which can lead to success or failure for rare species. Plants and animals can be affected by weather, invasive predators or simply natural cycles of good or bad years.

Going up

The rare and beautiful ladybird spider has benefitted from good numbers of beetles on which it feeds. Ladybird spiders get their name from the bright red body and black spots of the diminutive male spider. 

They were thought to be extinct until a small number were rediscovered in 1980 at one site in Dorset. Since then they have been reintroduced to several more sites, including the RSPB’s Arne reserve in Dorset, where this year a higher number of distinctive tissue-paper-like webs were observed.

The water vole, Britain’s fastest declining mammal, has recolonised Scotland’s Insh Marshes. This is thought to be the result of mink control in the Cairngorms National Park. American mink, a non-native predator related to otters and weasels, have contributed to a 90 per cent decline in water vole numbers over the past 40 years. 

There has been a noticeable increase on some RSPB reserves of flowering spikes of Irish lady’s tresses, a rare orchid

Mink were originally imported from America for fur farms, but escapes and deliberate releases mean that they are now found throughout the British countryside. The Scottish Mink Initiative is working to remove mink from the north of Scotland we are now seeing the first signs of water vole recovery.

There has been a noticeable increase on some RSPB reserves of flowering spikes of Irish lady’s tresses, a rare orchid, found in the north west of Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

This plant is more commonly seen in North America and grows on wet, grazed meadows. It gets its name from the small flowers which grow in a spiral up the stem, resembling the outline of braided hair. Staff were delighted to find a new population at the RSPB's Portmore Lough reserve in Northern Ireland.

The marsh fritillary butterfly has had a good year on the Scottish island of Islay, where two reserves are managed to provide the lightly grazed meadows the insects need. Populations of this brightly-coloured butterfly, whose shiny appearance earns it the nickname 'greasy fritillary', tend to fluctuate in a roughly seven-year cycle. 

The caterpillars feed on a small plant called Devil’s-bit scabious and make distinctive silk tents. A species of parasitic wasp relies on these caterpillars, so a good year for the marsh fritillary can be a good one for the rare wasp too.

Going down

One of Britain’s rarest bees, the great yellow bumblebee, is found on 13 of the RSPB’s reserves in the north and west of Scotland. Although doing well on neighbouring Tiree, in the Inner Hebrides, the population on Coll has declined. RSPB scientists believe this could be due to a lack of early flowers such as red clover when the queens emerged in June.

The high brown fritillary is Britain’s most endangered butterfly, and have declined by around 80 per cent since the 1970s. They’re now found at around 50 sites in Wales and the west of England, where their caterpillars feed on violets. 

This year, a count of adult butterflies at Leighton Moss only found four, compared to last year's 78. The cause for the drop on this reserve is unclear as the habitat remains in good condition.

'Climate change is already having an impact on wildlife and this affects decisions on our reserves'

The nationally-scarce yellow vetch, a member of the pea family of plants, has vanished from Havergate Island in Suffolk, following the severe winter storms, but it is still present at other sites in the UK. It grows on shingle beaches and this puts it at risk from storm surges.

The black-and-blue-striped southern damselfly lives in pools and small streams on acid heathland, with strongholds in the New Forest and Pembrokeshire, and smaller colonies in other areas of Wales, Oxfordshire and the west of England. 

In the past it has benefitted from the introduction of cattle grazing on the RSPB’s Aylesbeare Common reserve in east Devon, where up to 200 individuals have been recorded. However this year numbers were well down at several east Devon sites. The RSPB hopes that by creating more pools to slow the flow of water it can help this species recover.

60 per cent of UK species declining

Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, said: 'Last year’s State of Nature report showed that 60 per cent of UK species are declining. This year some have done well, largely because of a combination of good weather and the right management of a network of protected areas, such as our nature reserves.  

'These can help wildlife flourish even if the intervening countryside is inhospitable. 

'Climate change is already having an impact on wildlife and this affects decisions on our reserves. It also intensifies the call for more, bigger and better connected protected areas. Our best sites must be protected and budgets to support wildlife-friendly farming must be bolstered.'

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