SINCE creating a meadow area in his own back garden three years ago, Sir David Attenborough has enjoyed an influx of wildlife and is this year hoping to see a wide range of butterfly visitors.
"I have an area of meadow turf with a mown lawn walkway which winds its way through it and I see a number of different butterflies – meadow browns, cabbage whites and, occasionally, tortoiseshells," he said. "I haven't seen a red admiral for a number of years, though, but I used to."
As president of the charity Butterfly Conservation, Sir David will be taking part in this year's Big Butterfly Count, in which people are asked to report sightings to give the charity a clearer picture of the nation's butterflies.
This, in turn, gives us a view of the state of the countryside as a whole.
"The count helps us a great deal," said Sir David. "It provides a recognition chart from a scientifically accurate, huge army of observers whose results can give you all kinds of important information. What we know is that last year was a good year for butterflies, in that a lot of species came back or increased in numbers, but the decline in British butterflies is still going on. Last year was an optimistic blip."
Three-quarters of the UK's butterflies are in decline and one-third are in danger of extinction, warns the charity.
"Butterflies are a key indicator species of the health of our environment – if they are struggling, then many other species are struggling also," said Sir David.
"Butterflies are pollinators, pollinating the countryside. To have pollinators in the countryside means you have a healthy and renewing countryside. If you lose them, you will lose a great deal."
Butterfly numbers have declined because the numbers of wild places left in the countryside have diminished as agriculture has become more efficient, he says. "But, if you put together all our suburban gardens, they form a huge area in the British landscape and they can help replace those wild places that agriculture has taken over."
Gardeners can do their bit to help butterflies, said Sir David. "Gardeners can take a small patch of their cultivated, cosseted garden to go wild," he added. "You may not like nettles or brambles, but they provide food for quite a range of butterflies."
Plants including buddleia, verbena bonariensis, lavender, perennial wallflowers and marjoram are all magnets for butterflies.
Other plants which attract them include hebes, cosmos, phlox, pinks and heleniums.
Try to provide flowers right through the butterfly season.
Spring flowers are vital for butterflies coming out of hibernation, while autumn flowers help butterflies build up their reserves for winter.
The Big Butterfly Count runs until Sunday, August 10. For more information, visit www.bigbutterflycount.org