The shocking story of Butterfly Declines Across Europe

Because butterflies are so loved and well-studied, there is good evidence of what butterfly species occurred in Europe, Britain, and Ireland over the past 100 years and further back, and the species that have flourished, declined, were gained, and lost.

For many countries in Western and Central Europe, the story is certainly very worrying. The countries that border the Mediterranean and those in the far north of Europe have suffered less decline and loss, but these areas are not without challenges that affect butterfly populations.

Since the early years of the 20th century, England has lost the Mazarine Blue (possibly c.1903 but may have disappeared in c. 1865), Black-veined White (1923), Large Tortoiseshell (c.1950), Large Blue (1979), and Chequered Skipper (1975). The Large Copper was lost c. 1864, due entirely to habitat destruction.

Large Copper is a beautiful species that can be used to publicise the need for conservation practices. This butterfly was lost from England when the fens were drained. The upperside can be seen below. Photos J. Harding.

In the UK, the Duke of Burgundy, High Brown Fritillary, and Heath Fritillary are in serious trouble and the High Brown Fritillary, in very deep trouble, may be lost. Several other species are falling in abundance and distribution there, including the Marsh Fritillary, Pearl-bordered Fritillary, and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary. Just to take the statistics for one butterfly, the Wood White. This elegant, dainty creature has fallen by 82% in its population and 76% in its distribution during the period 1979-2019.

Wood White, ranked near threatened in Ireland, relies on wooded habitat on carboniferous limestone that is being destroyed, especially in areas outside the Burren, such as around Lough Corrib, County Galway. J. Harding

You will see from the dates that butterfly declines and losses have been taking place in England for a long time. The situation is also very depressing in parts of central Europe. The northern Belgian province of Flanders has seen steep losses. 20 butterflies have become extinct (29% of its species list), and between 1992 and 2007 overall numbers declined by around 30%. A study published in the early 2000s found that 18 species (28% of its list) were threatened with extinction. In the Netherlands, 20% of species have become extinct, and since 1990 overall numbers in the country declined by 50%. Denmark and the Czech Republic are in the same sorry category of loss and decline suffered by Belgium and the Netherlands.

The Black-veined White is now extinct in the Netherlands.

Just to give an indication of how grave the situation in the Netherlands is, consider the fact that the Silver-washed Fritillary, thriving in Ireland and rising in abundance in England is in deep trouble there. The Dingy Skipper, holding steady in the UK and Ireland, is very rare in the Netherlands. The Marsh Fritillary is now extinct in the Netherlands.

The Silver-washed Fritillary thrives in Ireland’s woods especially where native trees exist.  This butterfly is in trouble in the Netherlands. Photo J. Harding

Countries in Europe were ranked in 2019 in the Journal of Insect Conservation according to their butterfly red lists where species are ranked under threat categories. There are five rankings, excluding countries that lack data.

The next group of countries is in a loss category below that occupied by Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the Czech Republic. These are Germany, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and the UK.

Ireland is ranked in the next group of countries; we are mid-table for losses, along with countries such as Ukraine, Switzerland, Hungary and Finland.

The two countries that fare the best, with the lowest declines, are Spain and Italy.

Chris Van Swaay, one of Europe’s most eminent butterfly experts, explains the declines in the Netherlands.

“Before 1950 or so, grasslands in the Netherlands very much resembled what we now only have left in some nature reserves – they were wet, they had lots of flowers, were lightly grazed and mown only once or twice a year. This was very low-intensity farming.

“In two decades after the 1950s, the countryside was rebuilt – land was drained and planted with one species of grass, large amounts of fertiliser was put on the land, and it was mown six times a year. There is no room for butterflies except on road verges and nature reserves. The countryside is more or less empty.”

The reasons for the declines in Europe, Britain and Ireland are quite similar and often the same. Modern farming methods are the greatest causes of decline and loss. These methods have caused massive habitat loss and degradation with large areas of our land mass devoted to production of one crop species with no room for any other plant. In areas where this has not happened, traditional farming methods that maintained biodiversity have fallen out of use, creating successional changes that have lost us heathlands and grasslands, while the cessation of traditional woodland management has changed woodlands, resulting in closed canopies and darker woods unsuitable for many woodland species.

The loss of habitats for other reasons, such as building, afforestation, land drainage, and peat mining has also contributed to losses.

More recently, the concern is growing about the impact of chemical pollution, which can damage habitats that are not directly affected by changes in farming practices or habitat destruction. The deposition of nitrogen from the air is believed to be responsible for changing the character and chemical content of vegetation, making the habitat and foodplant unsuitable for butterflies. This is a sinister threat because it can affect populations that occur a long distance from industry and intensive farming. It is also difficult to address, requiring, probably, a geographical-scale response, not simply a local or national strategy to reduce air pollution.

Climate change is a further challenge; this is complex because some species are beneficiaries of a warming climate, while others suffer. Cold-adapted species are driven further north or uphill, and warmth-loving species are extending their range northwards. A mismatch between the development of vegetation and emergence or breeding times may be driving declines in some areas. For example, increasing dryness and heat in the Mediterranean region may deprive some species of nectar and foodplants. Extreme climate events associated with climate change can have dramatic and sudden impacts. The Green-veined White’s abundance in many areas of Ireland crashed in 2019 following the drought in 2018.

The Small Copper is under threat in some hot, dry areas in the Mediterranean, with increasing aridity meaning its food is becoming scarce or unavailable. Elsewhere, the chemical inputs being absorbed by its foodplants in intensively farmed grassland is poisoning its larvae. Photo J. Harding

How do we deal with the threats to our butterflies?

We need policies and actions that reverse the damage described above.

Greening our urban and suburban spaces by allowing vegetation to grow and planting native plants from local seed will help. Avoid tidiness; relax management in gardens, parks, verges, and the grounds of businesses. Do not use chemicals in these areas.

Reserves will not save butterflies unless they are large and managed. Many protected areas are too small and are often badly managed and being damaged. Landscapes must be protected, and these must contain a range of habitats. A good example of where this is done is the Burren in Counties Clare and Galway.

Pollution must be tackled. Massive chemical inputs in agriculture and reseeding grassland is destroying nature in general. Monoculture grasslands should be replaced with multi-species swards generated by allowing the seed bank in the soil to germinate. In areas where intensive farming is needed, ‘wild’ land must be incorporated into the landscape, typically as unfarmed extended field margins adjoining hedgerows and wood edges.

Woodlands containing native trees grown by allowing woods to extend naturally would add habitat diversity, as would maintaining wide rides allowing light in the woods. New woods must not be grown on high nature value semi-natural grassland, heaths, and bogs. New woods should be planted on intensively managed farmland. Scrub must be allowed to develop at the margins of woods rather than having a sharp edge where woodland transitions directly to open grassland.

Encourage a love of nature in everyone. Most focus is on youth education, naturally, but highlighting the intrinsic importance and wonder of nature should be promoted at all levels of the population. Participate in citizen science monitoring of butterfly populations to help to build knowledge of the status of butterfly populations. Getting involved in conservation organisations is important because these do important practical conservation, monitoring and education. These organisations help to influence policy in favour of caring for our environment.

Most of our countryside looks the way it does because it is heavily plied with chemicals. Fields of uniform, sharply green sward without flowers is not the ‘natural way.’ Fertilisers exclude flowers by promoting accelerated grass growth and in some cases, by providing a  chemistry that kills flowers. Herbicides kill any flowers that remain. There is certainly no need for our gardens, parks, and hedge margins to look like this. Make sure your patch doesn’t.


Maes, D., Verovnik, R., Wiemers, M. et al. Integrating national Red Lists for prioritising conservation actions for European butterflies. J Insect Conserv 23, 301–330 (2019).

Warren, M.S., Maes, D., van Swaay, Chris A M, Goffart, P., Van Dyck, H., Bourn, N.A.D., Wynhoff, I., Hoare, D. & Ellis, S. 2021, “The decline of butterflies in Europe: Problems, significance, and possible solutions”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS, vol. 118, no. 2.

Thomas, J. and Lewington, R. (2014) The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland. (Revised edition) British Wildlife Publishing, Dorset.






Butterfly Populations in Trouble Across Ireland and Britain

Last August we reported the latest information concerning the state of Ireland’s butterfly populations. The picture painted by the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme data for 2020 and 2021 was not positive, with no species showing positive trends in 2021 with only two, the Brimstone and Peacock, showing a stable trend since 2008, the baseline year. The most recent data from the UK is now available. 

In this article, we present the overall data for the UK report, the data for some of the species found in both the UK and Ireland, and comment on the findings.

Key findings of “The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2022”

In the UK, long-term trends show that 80% of butterfly species have decreased in abundance (the number of butterflies) or distribution (the areas where butterflies occur), or both since the 1970s. By comparison, 56% of species increased in one or both trends. These findings are very similar to the headline results of the previous assessment in 2015. As then, the report finds that there are winners and losers but, on average, UK butterflies have lost 6% of their total abundance at monitored sites and 42% of their distribution over the period 1976-2019. Considering only the changes that assessors have most confidence in (those that are statistically significant), almost twice as many UK species have decreased in at least one measure than have increased: 61% have decreased and 32% increased.

Most habitat specialist species, (species restricted to particular habitats such as flower-rich grassland, heathland and woodland clearings), have declined dramatically in the UK. As a group, their abundance has decreased by over one-quarter (-27%) and their distribution by over two-thirds (-68%) since 1976 (1976 is the baseline year used for UK butterfly monitoring; in Ireland, it is 2008). Wider countryside species, butterflies that can breed in the farmed countryside and in urban areas, have fared less badly, although as a group they have decreased since 1976 (-17% in abundance and -8% in distribution).

Multi-species indicators provide an overall summary of changes in either abundance or distribution by combining species-level indices for groups of butterflies sharing particular attributes. The report authors constructed abundance and distribution indicators for all butterfly species (including the common migrants), and separately for resident species classified as habitat specialists or wider countryside species, at the UK level and for each of the UK countries, where there were sufficient data. Multi-species indicators for abundance and distribution were also produced for Butterfly Conservation’s Priority Species at the UK level.

Multi-species distribution indicators at UK and country levels were also constructed by combining occupancy indices in three ways: for all species, for habitat specialists and for wider countryside butterflies.

Long-term UK abundance trends

Analysing the standardised count data from the UKBMS generated long-term trends for 58 species. UKBMS is the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. It uses data gathered from transect walks, which uses the same methodology used by the Irish BMS in which recorders walk a fixed route (transect) in good weather each week from 1 April to 30 September and count every butterfly in an imaginary 5m box. Overall, more species decreased than increased in abundance: 30 species (52% of the total) had negative trends and 28 species (48%) positive trends. The statistical significance of trends provides a measure of the confidence that we should place in the changes they show. We can be much more certain that species with statistically significant trends have genuinely changed in abundance, irrespective of how large or small the change is. The UK long-term trends show that 19 species (33% of the total) have decreased significantly in abundance, 15 species (26%) have increased significantly and 24 species (41%) have non-significant trends. Only slightly more species decreased in abundance than increased at UKBMS-monitored sites. This represents a small improvement in the fortunes of UK butterflies compared to the previous assessment in 2015, when 36% of species with long-term abundance trends had decreased significantly and 23% had increased significantly.

Long-term UK Distribution Trends

Occupancy modelling of Butterflies for the New Millennium (BNM) species occurrence records was used to produce long-term UK distribution trends for 58 species. This method uses non-standardised recording, where recorders log any life cycle stage of any butterfly species, anywhere in the UK on any day of the year. This flexibility encourages large numbers of contributors leading to very widespread coverage of the UK landscape every year. This is the same system used by Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s recording scheme; see

Overall, 43 species (74%) had negative distribution trends and 15 species (26%) positive trends. Far more species have decreased in distribution than have increased. The same pattern is found just for those species with statistically significant distribution trends: 30 species (52% of the total) had significant decreases in distribution, eight species (14%) significant increases and 20 species (34%) showed changes in distribution that were not statistically significant. Nearly four times as many species have decreased significantly in distribution as have increased. The occupancy modelling approach used differs from that in the 2015 assessment, so a direct comparison is less valid than for the abundance trends. However, fewer species show significant distribution trends (both decreases and increases) now compared to the 2015 report.

Combined Assessment (Abundance and Distribution)

Considering just the statistically significant trends, 36 species (61%) had decreased significantly in one or both trends and 19 species (32%) had increased significantly in one or both. Almost twice as many species had a significant negative trend in at least one measure than had a significant positive trend in one or both.

Although it remains widely distributed, mainly around the UK coastline, there is increasing concern about Grayling, which has suffered a severe long-term decline. Since 1976, the abundance of this species has decreased by 72% and its distribution by 92% at the UK level, and with major declines in both measures in England, Scotland and Wales. The data from Northern Ireland was insufficient to produce trends. These ongoing, rapid declines recently led to Grayling being upgraded from Vulnerable to Endangered on the GB Red List. Dependent on fine leaved grasses growing in sparse vegetation with much open ground or rock, the butterfly faces threats from habitat degradation due to ecological succession and nitrogen deposition, and from consequent small population size and increasing isolation.

The trends for Large Heath, another Priority Species, provide a positive picture, with a very large (407%) increase in abundance at monitored sites and little change in distribution (-2%) since the 1990s. Although present in all four UK countries, the remote location of most colonies means that few are monitored, and data are only sufficient to produce a UK-level abundance trend. Many of the monitored sites are managed for biodiversity and Large Heath populations have benefitted, for example from peatland restoration on lowland bogs in Scotland. However, there are concerns elsewhere in its range. For example, at some sites on the North York Moors and in Northumberland, there has been a substantial reduction in the amount of cottongrasses, the Large Heath’s larval foodplants, perhaps due to climate change. In many other areas, particularly in the uplands, data on how the butterfly and its habitats are faring are lacking.

Marsh Fritillary is the focus of conservation efforts in all four UK countries. Its distribution has decreased by 43% since 1985.

Marsh Fritillary underside, Kildare. © J. Harding.

The report then focussed on the individual countries in the UK.


In England Wood White has decreased by 82% in abundance (1979-2019) and by 77% in distribution (1992-2019), is classed as Endangered on the Red List and is a Priority Species for Butterfly Conservation. Most of the long-term abundance decline took place during the 1980s and recent signs are more positive, thanks to intensive conservation efforts in many parts of the Wood White’s range.

Northern Ireland

The multi-species indicators for Northern Ireland’s butterflies show decreases of 17% in abundance (2006- 2019) and 10% in distribution (1993-2019). However, only about half of the resident and regularly breeding butterfly species in Northern Ireland had sufficient data to calculate long-term trends up to 2019, so these indicators are not necessarily representative of all butterflies. In particular, habitat specialist species that are of conservation concern in Northern Ireland, such as Large Heath, Small Blue and Dingy Skipper do not, as yet, have sufficient monitoring coverage to produce trends. (The Small Blue and Dingy Skipper have highly restricted distribution in Northern Ireland, especially the Small Blue.)

The Wall butterfly has suffered a precipitous decline in Northern Ireland and appears to be on the verge of extinction. Formerly found in all six counties, a rapid decline since the 1990s reduced the species to the coastline of Co. Down, where there were only three records in the period 2015-2019. A single Wall was also seen in 2021, so the species is still clinging on. The cause is not known with any certainty, but the decline mirrors that experienced by Wall in England and Wales, where it is also among the most severely declining butterfly species, and in other parts of Europe.

Small Heath is another species, like Wall, which is associated with short, sparse turf, and which has undergone a rapid distribution decline (40% decrease 1995-2019) in Northern Ireland. Indeed, Small Heath has decreased significantly in all four UK countries. Loss and deterioration of habitat seem the most likely drivers of this decline, with factors such as climate change and nutrient pollution stimulating greater vegetation growth resulting in longer, denser swards even on sites managed for biodiversity. Small Heath caterpillars fail to survive on grasses when fertilizers are applied at the levels typically used in intensive agriculture, which suggests that the species may also be harmed away from farmland by smaller amounts of atmospheric nitrogen pollution.

Dingy Skipper declined by 15% in abundance and 35% in distribution 1976-2019.

Orange-tip declined by 26% in abundance and 1% in distribution 1976-2019.

Small Copper declined by 39% in abundance and 37% in distribution 1976-2019.

Small Tortoiseshell declined by 79% in abundance, but its distribution increased slightly up 0.2% 1976-2019.

Comma increased by 203% in abundance and 94% in distribution 1976-2019.

Silver-washed Fritillary increased by 284% in abundance and 1% in distribution 1976-2019.

A male Orange-tip rests during overcast weather. Have you seen one this year? Photo J. Harding

Regarding Cryptic Wood White Butterfly Conservation UK’s new analyses provide a more optimistic picture with nonsignificant trends suggesting an increase in abundance over the past decade and a stable distribution trend from 1993-2019. Unlike Wood White, which is mainly a woodland species in the UK, Cryptic Wood White uses more open habitats such as grasslands, and colonies are at risk from urban development and agricultural intensification. Other species that appear to be experiencing recent upturns in their fortunes, even if data are currently insufficient to demonstrate it quantitatively, include Dark Green Fritillary, Silver-washed Fritillary and Holly Blue. All three appear to be continuing to expand across Northern Ireland, where suitable habitats exist.


There are strong similarities in the population declines and increases seen in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Looking at the species that occur across these islands that are under pressure, most are species that occur on grassland. Grayling, Gatekeeper, Small Heath and Wall breed on grasses, which are almost certainly being affected by agriculture and industry adding nitrates to soils. This is being done directly, by the application of fertilisers and indirectly, by nitrates arising from farming, nylon manufacture and burning fossil fuels deposited from the atmosphere on soils, either in precipitation or as trace gases and particulate matter. There is good evidence that this is poisoning larvae feeding on nitrogen-enriched foodplants and cooling the temperature around the foodplant, which prevents or slows larval development. There is evidence that some non-grass feeders, like the Small Copper, which breeds on sorrels, are poisoned by fertiliser uptake by the foodplant.

The fact that declines are noted in areas where there is no agricultural activity suggests atmospheric pollution. There is very little farming activity along the Dublin coastline, and the Grayling and Wall are extremely rare on the coastal dunes where they used to be abundant and well distributed.

Quite concerning is the information from Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) that the largest amounts of wet deposition inputs of nitrate (NO3) and ammonium (NH4+) (deposited from the atmosphere by rain and snow) are found in the uplands of Wales, northern England and western Scotland, away from industrial areas.

Nitrogen transformation and plant uptake of mineral nitrogen involve the production and consumption of protons and can, therefore, contribute to soil acidification. Where this occurs, plants that occur only or chiefly on alkaline soils, such as Kidney Vetch and Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, may disappear, impacting on butterflies that breed on calcicoles (plants that need lime-rich soil), such as Small Blue and Common Blue.

There is also evidence that the poor recovery of sensitive species of Sphagnum moss in the southern Pennines (Lancashire and Yorkshire) is largely due to toxicity of ammonia NH4+ and nitrate NO3 deposition. Loss of moss and lichen species in Cumbria over the past 30-40 years may also be due to increased nitrogen deposition over that period. This has implications for the health of our bogs, and for the Large Heath which relies on peat bogs for its survival.

The loss of Marsh Fritillary populations in the UK appears to be due to loss of habitat. This is where habitat is simply removed by agricultural intensification such as ploughing and reseeding. Habitat loss is also taking place in Ireland, where land drainage, agricultural ‘improvement’ and afforestation is taking a toll, but natural succession, where scrub and woodland is developing on grassland no longer grazed, and on cutaway bogs where machinery disturbance has ceased and scrub develops, is also resulting in habitat loss.

There is some good news. The Small Tortoiseshell, its abundance in decline in the UK (-79%), appears less affected here. Between 2008 and 2021, it declined in abundance by 49%. A new enemy, Sturmia bella, a parasitoid fly that colonised Britain from the continent has affected Small Tortoiseshell populations. This fly has not been recorded here, but it is possible that Irish and British (but probably not Northern Irish) populations are being reduced in abundance by drought conditions that force the butterfly to enter hibernation in mid-summer and cancel a second generation typically seen in September.

Better news is the advance of the Silver-washed Fritillary, thriving in new woods developing on cutaway bogs and abandoned farmland. This handsome butterfly increased in abundance in the UK but has not notably risen in distribution there; it has, it appears, always been more widely distributed in Ireland.

The Comma is thriving in the UK. It is one of the outstanding successes there, and it is rapidly expanding its distribution here, having begun its colonisation of Ireland in the early 2000s. The Comma appears to be benefiting from the warming climate and may also be thriving on nitrogen-enriched Stinging Nettles, its main larval foodplant. We now know that it is double-brooded in Ireland, and this may be boosting its colonisation.

The Pearl-bordered Fritillary is named for the seven pearls bordering the underside of the hindwing. J. Harding

The story of the fate of our butterflies is a developing narrative, with diverging fortunes for the cast of characters that comprise our butterfly fauna. Unless we continue to monitor our populations, we will lose the thread of the plots, and may lose our focus altogether. Having some very rare species, like the elegant Pearl-bordered Fritillary, which occurs only in parts of the Burren, we need to maintain our monitoring and conservation focus. The UK has seen a decline of 64% in abundance and a disastrous 88% in the distribution 1979-2019.  A leading butterfly scientist, Professor Jeremy Thomas, commented in 2010: “Unbelievably for entomologists of my generation, the butterfly is extinct in Dorset, Kent and Somerset…reduced to single sites in Surrey and Gloucestershire.”  In Ireland, the Pearl-bordered Fritillary only occupies ten 10 km squares. We cannot such losses to happen here.



Fox R, Dennis EB, Purdy KM, Middlebrook I, Roy DB, Noble DG, Botham MS & Bourn NAD (2023) The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2022. Butterfly Conservation, Wareham, UK. Available at

Harding, J. (2021) The Irish Butterfly Book. Privately published, Maynooth.

Judge, M and Lysaght, L. (2022), The Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme Newsletter, Issue 14.

Nash, D., Boyd, T. and Hardiman, D. (2012) Ireland’s Butterflies a review. Dublin Naturalists’ Field Club, Dublin.

Thomas, J. and Lewington, R. (2014) The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland. (Revised edition) British Wildlife Publishing, Dorset.,indicators%20of%20increased%20N%20deposition.






A Plastic World

Today’s Irish Examiner has a feature concerning the use of artificial lawns. The introduction followed by Butterfly Conservation Ireland’s contribution to the feature article is shown below.

The full article is available at

Plastic grass: Low-maintenance fuss-free greenery — or a menace to the environment?

CAROLINE DELANEY examines the backlash against synthetic lawns, and asks environmental experts for their observations
Plastic grass: Low-maintenance fuss-free greenery — or a menace to the environment?
The idea of durable low-maintenance fake grass is attractive but environmentalists say it is not as fuss-free as we may believe — and it has several drawbacks that ought to be considered before we invest in it.

It’s sold as low-maintenance, fuss-free and durable. And artificial grass is definitely gaining a foothold here. There are dozens of plastic grass specialists across the country offering ‘instant lawns’ to playschools, cafés, hotels, and homeowners. Then, there’s the DIY option with retailers such as Co-Op Superstores, Homestore & More, and Woodies — and even carpet outlets — offering grass tiles or rolls of artificial grass which can be laid in a manner similar to carpet.


Check out our Sustainability and Climate Change Hub where you will find the latest news, features, opinions and analysis on this topic from across the various Irish Examiner topic desks and their team of specialist writers and columnists.

But when we have an official biodiversity emergency as noted by the Dáil in 2019 and the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss in 2022, and when there is a commitment in the Programme for Government to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises, is there still a place for artificial grass?

Bloom controversy

Artificial grass has been banned from Chelsea Flower Show but, controversially, showed up in displays at Bloom here in Ireland last year. However, this year there will be no plastic grass at Ireland’s largest garden festival which this year takes place from June 1 to 5.

A Bord Bia spokesperson confirmed: “Bord Bia Bloom actively discourages the use of artificial grass in any on-site activation from sponsors on-site, and there are no artificial grass providers registered to exhibit at this year’s event.”

The garden designers at Bloom are also unlikely to use plastic grass this year, the spokesperson said: “Bord Bia Bloom actively encourages show garden designers to use natural materials where possible.”

Referring to last year’s festival when some visitors and environmental experts said they were disappointed to see plastic grass on display, the spokesperson said: “There are some instances, such as at last year’s event where an exhibitor requested that a very small section of an accessible garden feature artificial grass as natural grass would not have supported the weight of a mechanised wheelchair. However, we strongly recommend to all of our designers that they incorporate natural, sustainably produced plants and grass in their gardens.”

This follows moves in recent years to ban artificial turf from the Chelsea Flower Show which this year runs from May 23-27, and other events run by the Royal Horticultural Society. The RHS, Britain’s leading gardening charity, said no fake grass would be allowed because of its damaging effect on the environment.

What the experts say

Overwhelmingly, experts in biodiversity and environment are calling to ban the use of plastic grass, or put prohibitive tax on it.

Jesmond Harding

The installation of artificial lawns and shrubbery offers convenience but nothing else. The materials used contribute to pollution and the finished product offers nothing but damage to biodiversity. Synthetic plants are made from petroleum and fossil fuels used in their manufacture generate pollution that damages soils, plants, insects, birds, and mammals. Visually, the effect is ugly, and reflects a lack of care for the natural environment. It highlights the disconnect from nature and the idea that natural surroundings are inconvenient rather than a source of wonder and pleasure. I have observed an increase in the use of artificial lawns and plastic shrubs in tubs, and my reaction is to ask why. What is the appeal?

Jesmond Harding is the author of The Irish Butterfly Book.
Jesmond Harding is the author of The Irish Butterfly Book.

Artificial plants look tasteless and cheap. Even those that appear lifelike show an unvarying flat, empty gleam. Sanitising one’s surroundings might be a motivation. Bizarrely, the use of artificial lawns is promoted as a response to climate change, as these do not need watering during drought. The irony of promoting materials that produce climate-warming gases as a solution is exasperating and perverse, an offence to common sense.

There has been an incremental advance in the appearance of synthetic plants. We used to see artificial house plants, such as lilies for indoor vases, progressing to potted shrubs and now to outdoor shrubs and lawns.

On one journey through a local housing estate, I counted the number of hard surfaces replacing grassed gardens, which proved to be two-thirds of the outdoor spaces observed. This trend appears to be influencing new housing developments, with hard-surfaced front gardens or with no front-of-house space, just adjoining on-street parking slots.

There are studies that show links between the decline in butterfly species and atmospheric nitrogen deposition, some of this caused by burning fossil fuels to make artificial plants.

There is no pressure to produce food crops in gardens, so there is no need to apply nitrogen fertilisers which create nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that has 300 times the heating power of carbon dioxide. Gardens can be a haven for species fleeing the onslaught of chemically-mediated farming, but only if we grow native grasses, flowers, shrubs and trees in our gardens.

Butterfly Conservation Ireland has found that about half of our butterfly species visit butterfly-friendly gardens, and around one-third of our butterflies breed in gardens containing the right plants and conditions.

A plastic garden has no appeal for our wildlife.

The convenience argument for artificial grass can be answered by using low-maintenance alternatives such as pea gravel sown with drought-tolerant native plants such as kidney vetch, bloody cranesbill and Common Bird’s-foot- trefoil — all great for pollinators and providing a long flowering period giving colour and texture from May to October. There is no such thing as effortless management.

The Irish Butterfly Book: A Complete Guide to the Butterflies of Ireland by JM Harding.
The Irish Butterfly Book: A Complete Guide to the Butterflies of Ireland by JM Harding.

While spot weeding is needed in a gravelled garden, it is also a requirement in artificial turf, where weeds will appear, despite the promise of maintenance-free convenience.

I would like to see the use of artificial plants banned or at the very least subject to high taxation to take account of the environmental damage involved in the production and use of such material. The use of such materials accelerates biodiversity loss; any activity that creates environmental damage should be discouraged or banned.

Jesmond Harding is the author of The Irish Butterfly Book and runs the charity Butterfly Conservation Ireland.