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Lepidoptera communities across an agricultural gradient: how important are habitat area and habitat diversity in supporting high diversity?

Abstract

Agricultural expansion and intensification have been linked with losses of biodiversity and disruption of key ecosystem services in farmed landscapes. A number of mitigation and adaptation strategies e.g. agri-environment schemes, have been implemented to counter these declines but their effectiveness has been questioned by conservationists as well as policy makers. A key concern is the lack of knowledge about how conservation efforts might best be directed; especially in terms of aligning the scale and type of implementation in different landscapes with the niche requirements and dynamics of different species and taxa. Here we focus on how the landscape context of farmed systems at different spatial scales determines the abundance of habitat generalist and specialist butterfly and moth species in southern England. We used butterfly data from 20 UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme sites, supplemented with moth data from a light trap survey of 11 sites, in southern England where the predominant habitat type sampled is lowland calcareous grassland. Our results show that larger areas of semi-natural grassland generally support larger numbers and a greater species richness of butterflies and moths, but that the composition of the Lepidoptera fauna changes with habitat size depending on the diversity of habitats in the landscape, particularly at the larger spatial scale. Larger areas of grassland in less diverse landscapes result in a proportionally greater number and diversity of habitat specialists, whilst habitat diversity is important in maintaining numbers and diversity of more generalist wider countryside species. Large areas of single habitat types may only be economically maintained at the expense of habitat diversity. Whilst these sites may be important in promoting abundance and diversity of selected specialist species, they may be prone to lower overall species richness. This has implications for improving the design and implementation of agri-environment schemes aimed at providing suitable habitat in order to promote the abundance and diversity of Lepidoptera and other taxa.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Dave Wilton for his help collecting data in the field, Stephen Freeman, Gary Powney and Tom August for advice on statistical analyses, John Redhead for GIS analyses and Sara Ball and two anonymous referees for helpful comments on the manuscript. Further thanks go to the following people for site access to collect moth data: Colin Williams, Gavin Bennett and Giles Alder (Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust), Granville Nicholls, Neil Harris, Joe Mayled, Joanne Hodgkins (National Trust), Des Sussex, Mick Venters and Bob Silverwood, (Natural England), John Shaw (Wycombe District Council), Anthony Allen, Chris Raper, David Kent, Jonny Edwards, Phil Townsend, and Sam Fielden. Butterfly data was supplied by the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS). The UKBMS is operated by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and Butterfly Conservation and funded by a multi-agency consortium including Defra, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Forestry Commission, Natural England, the Natural Environment Research Council, Natural Resource Wales, and Scottish Natural Heritage. The UKBMS is indebted to all volunteers who contribute data to the scheme.

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Correspondence to M. S. Botham.

Appendices

Appendix 1

See Tables 5 and 6.

Table 5 Summary of different butterfly species occurring across the 20 study sites including whether the species is classified as a wider countryside species (WC) or a habitat specialist (HS) under ‘Strategy’ and whether the species is associated with semi-natural grassland habitats as denoted with an ‘x’ in the final column
Table 6 Summary of different moth families occurring across 855 the 11 study sites, in order of the most to the least abundant family

Appendix 2

See Table 7.

Table 7 Summary of habitat variable values for 500 m and 2 km buffer sizes across all sites for butterfly transect and moth trap sites

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Botham, M.S., Fernandez-Ploquin, E.C., Brereton, T. et al. Lepidoptera communities across an agricultural gradient: how important are habitat area and habitat diversity in supporting high diversity?. J Insect Conserv 19, 403–420 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10841-015-9760-y

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10841-015-9760-y

Keywords

  • Butterflies
  • Moths
  • Species–area
  • AES
  • Habitat heterogeneity
  • Calcareous grassland