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Modern farming and healthy butterfly populations can co-exist through better management of land

29 March 2010

The way grassland buffer strips are maintained could have a significant impact on improving biodiversity on farms, according to BBSRC-funded research carried out by the University of Reading.

Over a two-year period, Reading PhD student Robin Blake managed to almost double the number of butterflies on existing grass buffer strips, by finding an effective way of encouraging wildflower growth.

An image of a Tortoiseshell Agalis Urticae Butterfly
Image: © Dr. Emma Pilgrim
Buffer strips [ref 1] are small areas of vegetation around the edges of fields, designed to enhance biodiversity and reduce the impact of agricultural operations on adjacent habitats. They were introduced as part of a suite of agri-environmental measures to help reverse declines in farmland biodiversity caused by modern farming methods. Loss and degradation of habitat such as wildflower meadows has been implicated in a 23 % decline in farmland butterflies between 1990 and 2007 [ref 2].

With a growing world population set to reach 9Bn by 2050, there is a challenge to increase production of safe, nutritious and affordable food in a sustainable way. This new approach not only has the potential to reduce the negative impact of modern farming on biodiversity, but could also help secure our future food supply by increasing the number of pollinating insects, such as butterflies and bumblebees, on farms.

Robin’s project found that wildflowers could be successfully introduced into existing grass buffer strips when managed with a particular combination of scarification [ref 3] and graminicide [ref 4]. This produced a higher abundance and diversity of butterflies compared to existing conventionally managed grass buffer strips.

Robin Blake, who is conducting his research in the University’s School of Agriculture, Policy & Development said: “Since grass buffer strips have been introduced they have failed to deliver biodiversity benefits. We wanted to see what effect various management treatments had on these areas of land, and see if we could increase both the wildflowers and the numbers of pollinating insects.

“Over the past two years we monitored the numbers of wildflowers and butterflies on buffer strips on two farms in Southern England. The results are encouraging as our managed buffer strips have really increased butterfly numbers. Further assessments over the next two years will determine if the wildflowers we introduced to the buffer strips can persist and continue to enhance butterfly populations. We hope that this work could signal a new approach for agri-environmental policy, and eventually lead to increased biodiversity on farms in the UK.”
Robin will present his findings at the Butterfly Conservation’s 6th International Symposium, to be held at the University of Reading between 26-28 March.


Notes for editors

Robin’s project is supervised at the University of Reading by Dr Simon Potts and Dr Duncan Westbury, and by Peter Sutton from Syngenta. The BBSRC and Syngenta each fund 50% of the project.


  1. Various Agri-Environmental Schemes (AES) have been implemented with the aim of reversing the decline in UK farmland biodiversity. A popular AES option is the establishment of perennial grass buffer strips, with ~29,000 ha currently under AES agreements in UK. Buffer strips have several roles including the reduction of pesticide and fertiliser drift into hedgerows and watercourses, and as an important refugia for many flora and fauna. Although inexpensive, these strips are botanically species-poor, dominated by a few grass species, and entirely lacking a sown wildflower component.
  2. Data obtained from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme.
  3. Cultivation with a power harrow to break up the existing grass sward and create a crude seed bed into which wildflower seeds can be sown.
  4. Herbicide designed to control weedy grasses.

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