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Need a butterfly expert? Call 23-year-old Emil

The butterfly effect — When others went to rock festivals, Emil Blicher Bjerregård went out into the wilderness hunting butterflies. Now his hobby, and his studies, have merged together. He hopes to reverse the imminent death of the Danish butterfly, but tells himself that there are also other things in life.

If, for some reason, you want to know what’s happening right now with Danish butterfly fauna, you need to ask a 23-year-old Copenhagen biology student named Emil Blicher Bjerregård. This is a known fact in butterfly circles.

Researchers in biodiversity call him, national parks call him, and EU-funded nature projects call him. And, every now and then, a butterfly enthusiast will call him up with a question about the moorland clouded yellow, the large tortoiseshell or whatever.

Emil Blicher Bjerregård has an obsession that very few people understand, but he would hardly call it an obsession himself. He reckons he has become a more harmonious and balanced person after making it to 23, having a few sweethearts, and starting up on the biology programme at the University of Copenhagen.

He knows he has to do something else apart from looking at butterflies. In upper secondary school it was all about butterflies.

»I spent all my time on it. All my time. I have never been to the Roskilde Festival because this is the best time to observe butterflies. I missed upper-secondary school parties and a couple of graduation parties,« he says.

Where no other people go

In those years, he was doing a home-made research project. He spent thousands of hours studying collections of butterflies, databases, and scientific articles for old discoveries. A finding is actually a butterfly on a needle with a small label describing the species, age and location. Without the label the finding is completely and utterly useless.

»Every time I found an old article that said, say, that this species was found in that marsh in 1944, I went out to the marsh to see if it was still there.«

He has been places in Denmark that few people know exist. That’s why he knows all the train lines on the Danish islands of Zealand, Lolland, Falster and Møn. He also knows most of the bus routes and ferry crossings, because butterflies are usually where there are no people.

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He then compared his findings with older records. He can talk for a long time about what he came up with. But it can be summarised like this: Things are going badly.

Every decade, Danish butterfly species are going extinct, whole populations are disappearing regularly, and from 2014 to 2019 one quarter of the rarer populations of butterflies disappeared. With this project, the butterflying went from a hobby to suddenly becoming a job. Since then, he has held presentations at universities and for small, eccentric gatherings of insect and butterfly buffs.

It has also given him a place on the Board of the Danish Lepidopterists Association  — Lepidoptera is the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths  — and a role as specially appointed adviser on the national park Royal North Zealand.

There have even been episodes on his biology study programme where the lecturer spotted his name on the list of students and has come over to say hello during the break. So it’s not just bragging when he says:

»I am the person who knows most about this specific topic in Denmark.«

Young geek among the pensioners

In butterfly circles, they know that aberrations do take place. Like when a purple-edged copper (Lycaena Hippothoe), a mourning cloak (Nymphalis Antiopa) or perhaps even a cranberry blue (Agriades optilete) has mutated, so it has a slightly different colour or decoration than its species companions.

In the same butterfly circles, you could call Emil Blicher Bjerregård a kind of aberration too. He goes to the same events and shares the same interest as his peers in the Lepidopterists Association. He just happens to be 50 years younger than most of them, and a student.

»There are perhaps 10-15 young butterfly people in Denmark. And of them only two really nerd out on the subject, as some of them are mainly interested in beetles or dragonflies. The problem is — it is not something you go to like a sport. And it can be hard to start, because it is very knowledge-intensive. You usually say that if you really want to get involved in this, you have to start while you’re still a child,« he says.

And this is what he did, growing up in Hillerød in what he describes as a well-adjusted nuclear family with good finances, no alcoholics, smokers or quarrelling.

His father was a bird watcher in his free time, and so his brother became one too. They often took him along with them when they went out to look for resident and migratory birds. But instead of looking up, he looked down. It didn’t take long before he was running around with a fishnet to determine the species of butterflies.

People can better relate to a beautiful, endangered butterfly species than to some kind of stink bug.
Biology student Emil Blicher Bjerregård

At the time, he was ten years old, and he was quickly enrolled in the local butterfly association. They gave him old books and articles, and then he began to memorize the characteristics and Latin designations of the various species. This is why the cranberry blue, in his head, is called Agriades optilete.

»I also read 50 volumes full of old excursion reports that go all the way back to the 1940s. There are stories of people cycling from Copenhagen to the island of Falster [120 kilometres, ed.] during the war to catch butterflies that are extinct today,« he says.

»I was drawn to the stories and the experiences of nature. It somehow set something off inside me. I thought it was great to get out into all those meadows, grasslands and marshlands, where the butterflies flitted around your legs. It was the combination of wild nature and adventure.«

Men – and only men – who sacrifice everything

There are plenty of stories going around in the Lepidopterists’ Society and other butterfly associations. There are men who have given up on a life of family and children to collect all the world’s butterflies. And there are stories of men who have crossed mine fields in Kazakhstan to find a common blue on a deserted steppe out in the back of beyond.

»We are talking about hardcore butterfly people here. There are only 280 members, and they completely geek out on it. It’s great to talk to people who have been in this business for so many years. There are many butterfly men who will walk through hell and high water to get all the species. I say men, because it is only men. There are no women — there is not one woman — in these circles.«

He compares this type of butterfly hunting with elite sport, because it affects the whole way in which you live your life. It’s just a kind of elite sport that few of your friends will understand. A good example from his own life was a trip to the Danish coastal town of Skagen in 2018, where he was looking for a particular species:

»The moorland clouded yellow lived in a few places in Denmark back in the eighteenth century and the days of yore. But it has actually been extinct for many years. Only in the event of a drought summer, can the species migrate in from Finland or Russia. They can fly hundreds of kilometres to the west and just touch on the northeast corners of the country, but this happens only in extremely rare cases.«

The last time it happened was in 1992. It was an insanely dry summer, where there was only rain on one day all summer, and this was 1 July. Emil Blicher Bjerregård tells the story like it was the most natural thing in the world to know the number of rainy days one summer where he was not yet even born. 150 specimens were found that year. During the next 24 years, only three were found. But in 2018, there was a similar drought with perfect wind and weather conditions. So he jumped on a night train heading for Skagen, and didn’t get any sleep because he had to prepare for an exam. Nine hours later the train arrived in Skagen.

»It was pure guesswork. But the conditions were perfect. I found the first specimen already three hours after arrival. I found a total of four in the course of the week, and it has not been seen in Denmark since then. When I first saw the specimen, I was ecstatic. I almost had to pinch myself to know I wasn’t dreaming, and cried out with joy. I called around to my butterfly friends, and others in the local area also went nuts about the news.«

The omen of Amanda’s blue

Emil Blicher Bjerregård has plenty to do when he is not at work on his biology study programme. He is currently helping to catalogue the Zoological Museum’s huge collection of butterflies, which is the 10th largest collection in the world.

And he is writing a report on the complete set of butterfly species on the island of Funen. This is when he is not being called up by the Kings’ North Zealand national park, who want to know how a small path or mountain bike trail will affect the butterflies in the locality.

Biodiversity has become a principle that both foundations, philanthropists, the government and the EU have been willing to throw money at. And interest in butterflies has increased as a result.

»People can better relate to a beautiful, endangered butterfly species than to some kind of stink bug. That’s the way it is. And then, butterflies are good indicator species. They are severely endangered, and they are really dropping in numbers. If you see an Amanda’s blue, you know nature here is in good shape, and you don’t see an Amanda’s blue in a rapeseed field. Butterflies are good at giving an indication of how nature is, and they are good for communication.«

Emil Blicher Bjerregård calls himself a pragmatist. He knows that we can’t have wild nature everywhere. We are a small country that has to make money, and we do this through forestry, agriculture, motorways, and so on. But there is not enough wild nature in Denmark. Even the nature and the forests that we believe to be wild, are often actually forests set up for harvesting.

»The problem with many of our natural areas is, that as soon as you do something because you are interested in making money, you cannot combine it with wild nature. In nature, it has to be varied, and large animals have to graze. Nature is disordered,« he says.

»We have a tendency to put a utility value on nature, but the butterflies and many other animals are there for their own sake. It will not be the end of the world if butterflies disappear. But it will be poorer if we just take control of the whole planet and eradicate all the species. 99.99 per cent of Danes do not know that there was once something called a Scarce heath in Denmark. If this was key to our prosperity, people would probably know about it. But we need to address nature for its own sake and not always as something that will be of benefit to us.«

But despite his pragmatic approach, he is quick to say that the trend for the Pearl-bordered fritillary is a disaster. That there are only five populations of it left in Denmark, in contrast to the 60 that were there in 1990, and that it will soon disappear completely because Danish forests are intensively cultivated fields of wood, where the main purpose is to make money on forestry.

An ulterior motive behind everything

When Emil Blicher Bjerregård looks back at all the hours and all the money he has spent travelling through Zealand, Lolland, Falster, Møn and parts of Jutland in his eagerness to register the Danish butterfly fauna, he sees it as an investment.

»It’s gradually starting to be profitable,« he says.

There are many things he would not have done today. This even though he has also had plenty of time to be young and get drunk and do what everyone else does. He has just not been able to do it as often.

His first goal was to see all the Danish species in as many different parts of the country as possible, and he achieved this a couple of years ago. The new objective for the more balanced Emil Blicher Bjerregård is to see all 500 European species. He has seen 215 so far, but it has to take the time it takes. It is a life goal that he expects will take another 40 years.

»I know that it is not compatible with a family and children to travel to European Russia or Kazakhstan to find a rare butterfly. But having it as a life goal, that is doable. I don’t have to achieve it in 20 years,« he says.

»But I have actually made an estimate of how many trips I have to go on. I am 23. If I have kids when I’m 30, then there are about 15 years when I won’t have much time for it. I may be able to entice my family to some Greek islands because they are good resorts and at the same time the home of some exciting species, but that’s it. For this reason, I have been quite strategic in going to northern Norway and some deserted areas in northern Finland over the last couple of years, where you probably won’t be able to bring your family. I have an ulterior motive behind everything.«

Translation: Mike Young

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