Use prescribed fire to maintain or restore disturbance in grasslands or other open habitats

How is the evidence assessed?
  • Effectiveness
    not assessed
  • Certainty
    not assessed
  • Harms
    not assessed

Study locations

Key messages

    • Thirteen studies evaluated the effects on butterflies and moths of using prescribed fire to maintain or restore disturbance in grasslands or other open habitats. Eight studies were in the USA, three were in the UK, one was in South Africa and one was a review across Europe.


    • Community composition (1 study): One replicated, site comparison study in the USA found that pastures managed by patch-burning had a similar butterfly community to rotationally or continuously grazed pastures.
    • Richness/diversity (3 studies): Two replicated, before-and-after studies (including one randomized, controlled study and one paired sites, site comparison study) in the USA found that shrubland plots and grass field margins managed by burning had a similar species richness of butterflies to those which were unburned. One replicated, site comparison study in the USA reported that pastures managed by patch-burning had a lower species richness of butterflies than rotationally grazed pastures, a similar richness to rotationally grazed and mown pastures, and a higher species richness than continuously grazed pastures.


    • Abundance (12 studies): Four of nine studies (including six replicated studies, two randomized studies, two paired sites studies, three controlled studies, two before-and-after studies, and five site comparison studies) in the UK, South Africa and the USA found that the abundance of heath fritillary adults, marsh fritillary caterpillar webs and Fender’s blue caterpillars and eggs was higher (sometimes after initial reductions in abundance) on heathland, fen meadows and prairies one or more years after management by burning than before burning, or compared to unburned or grazed land, although the total population of Fender’s blue declined in adjacent burned and unburned areas. Three studies found that the abundance of Brenton blue butterfly eggs and adults, rosy marsh moth caterpillars and regal fritillary adults was lower on a bog and prairies managed by burning than on unburned land, at least one and five years after burning. One study found that grass field margins managed by burning had a similar abundance of butterflies to unburned field margins. The seventh study found that abundance of Powershiek skipperling to burning, along with haying and idling, depended on the site’s vegetation characteristics. Two replicated, site comparison studies in the USA found that two prairie specialists (regal fritillary and arogos skipper) and three out of nine butterfly species were less abundant in prairies or pastures managed by burning than in prairies managed by haying or grazed pastures. These studies also found that the abundance of generalist and migrant species, and of purplish copper, was higher in burned prairies or pastures than hayed prairies or grazed pastures. One review across Europe reported that occasional burning on grassland benefitted 10 out of 67 butterfly species of conservation concern.
    • Survival (1 study): One replicated, paired sites, controlled study in the USA found that in prairie plots burned one year before, Fender’s blue butterfly caterpillars had lower survival than in unburned plots.


    • Use (1 study): One replicated, site comparison study in the UK found that a similar proportion of fen meadows were occupied by marsh fritillary caterpillars whether they were managed by burning, grazing or were unmanaged.

About key messages

Key messages provide a descriptive index to studies we have found that test this intervention.

Studies are not directly comparable or of equal value. When making decisions based on this evidence, you should consider factors such as study size, study design, reported metrics and relevance of the study to your situation, rather than simply counting the number of studies that support a particular interpretation.

Supporting evidence from individual studies

  1. A before-and-after study in 1980–1989 on a heathland on Exmoor, UK (Warren 1991) reported that prescribed burning increased the number of heath fritillary Mellicta athalia. Results were not tested for statistical significance. Seven years after burning, over 5,500 adult heath fritillary were recorded at the site, compared to 280 adults two years before burning. However, in the summer after burning, no heath fritillaries were seen, and only 17 were recorded the following year. The author noted that these adults may have recolonized from a neighbouring site 500 m away. In March 1982, most of a 9-ha heathland was burned. In 1980, and from 1982–1989, butterflies were surveyed annually on timed counts along a zig-zag route covering the known flight area.

    Study and other actions tested
  2. A replicated, site comparison study in 1992–1993 in 42 tall-grass prairies in Missouri, USA (Swengel 1996) found that two prairie specialist butterflies were less abundant, but generalist and migrant species were more abundant, in burned than in hayed prairies. At sites managed by burning, the abundance of two prairie specialists (regal fritillary Speyeria idalia and arogos skipper Atrytone arogos; 2–21 individuals/hour) was lower than at sites managed by haying (68–81 individuals/hour). However, generalist and migrant species were more abundant at burned sites (18–24 individuals/hour) than hayed sites (6–19 individuals/hour). See paper for some individual species results. Of 42 sites (6–571 ha), some were managed by cool-season burning covering 5–99% of the site, and the rest by summer haying on a 1–3 year rotation with occasional cattle grazing (number of sites in each management not given). In June 1992–1993, butterflies were surveyed at least once/year at most sites, either along a transect (35 sites) or from a single point (7 sites, recording only regal fritillary). Sixteen species observed >49 times and at >5 sites were included, and divided into “prairie specialists” (only found on prairies), “grassland species” (found in prairies and other grasslands), “generalists” (found in grasslands and other habitats) and “migrants” (only present in the study area during the growing season).

    Study and other actions tested
  3. A replicated, site comparison study in 1993 in 34 fen meadows in Glamorgan, UK (Lewis & Hurford 1997) found that managing grassland by burning did not affect site use by marsh fritillary Eurodryas aurinia compared to grazed or unmanaged grassland. There was no significant difference in the proportion of burned (5/8 sites), cattle-grazed (3/9), horse-grazed (2/6), sheep-grazed (0/2), mown (0/1) and unmanaged (4/8) sites that had >20 caterpillar webs recorded. However, the three largest populations (>200 caterpillar webs) were on sites burned in early spring. Caterpillar webs were present on 28/34 sites where adults had been recorded in May/June. In 1993, eight grasslands were burned, nine were cattle-grazed, six were horse-grazed, two were sheep-grazed, one was mown and eight were unmanaged. Sites were separated by >1 km of unoccupied grassland, or >0.5 km of unsuitable habitat. From late August–mid-October 1993, caterpillar webs were surveyed on 34 fen grasslands. On sites <2 ha, all devil’s bit scabious Succisa pratensis were searched in 2-m-wide parallel strips until the whole area had been searched. On larger sites, 2-m-wide strips at 10-m intervals were searched, and areas around caterpillar webs were then searched comprehensively.

    Study and other actions tested
  4. A replicated, paired, before-and-after, site comparison study in 1996–1998 in 12 mixed shrubland and forest sites in Nevada, USA (Fleishman 2000) found that butterfly species richness was similar between burned and unburned plots. Butterfly species richness was similar between plots that had been burned and plots that had not, and between plots before and after they were burned (data presented as model results). Additionally, the difference in butterfly community composition between two years in which plots had been burned was similar to between two years in plots which had not been burned in the first year but had been burned in the second year (data presented as community composition indices). Five plots (7–17 ha each) were burned in October 1996 or April 1997 and surveyed in 1997–1998. Two of the burn plots had paired unburned plots, similar in size, topography and pre-burning vegetation, but they too were burned in November 1997 and became burn plots thereafter. Five additional unburned plots (55–127 ha each) were surveyed in 1996–1998. In survey years at each plot, butterflies were identified via walking transects every two weeks from June–September.

    Study and other actions tested
  5. A site comparison study in 2000–2002 in one shrubland site in the Western Cape province, South Africa (Edge 2002) reported that after prescribed burning and some management of bracken fern Pteridium aquilinium there were fewer Brenton blue butterfly Orachrysops niobe eggs and adults during the laying and flight season in areas that had been burned. There were fewer Brenton blue eggs found in areas that had been burned (0.4–1.3 eggs/100 m2) than unburned areas (14.3–70.0 eggs/100 m2). Additionally, fewer  adult males (November: 69%, February: 31.1%) and females (November: 22.2%, February: 10.6%) were found in the burned areas (64% of the area surveyed) compared to unburned areas (males November: 31.0%, February: 68.9%; females November: 77.8%, February: 89.4%). In September 2000, a 2,700 m2 area of reserve was burned. Prior to the burn, in over 1,000 m2 of the area bracken fern was cut and 0.2 m of topsoil was turned over (“skoffeled”). In that area and another 1,400 m2, natural succession was allowed after the burn. In another 300 m2 of the burned area, bracken fern was removed manually for 6 months after the burn. In a 1,500 m2 area of reserve that was not burned, paths were cut with shears in July 2001, avoiding trees, large bushes and Indigofera erecta plants, and thereafter new bracken ferns were removed manually. In November 2001 and January–February 2002, all Indigofera erecta plants identified in the burned and unburned areas were checked for eggs and larvae. In October–November 2001 and January–February 2002 walking transects (9 times/season) and fixed-point surveys (7–8 times/season) were conducted to count and sex adult butterflies (it is not specified how many were in the burned and unburned areas).

    Study and other actions tested
  6. A replicated, paired sites, controlled study in 1994–1997 in eight grassland prairies in Oregon, USA (Schultz and Crone 2002) found that in burned plots there were more Fender’s blue butterfly Icaricia icarioides fenderi eggs, but caterpillars had lower survival, than in unburned plots. There were more eggs found/butterfly seen in burned plots (0.03 eggs/butterfly/m2) than in unburned plots (0.01 eggs/butterfly/m2). However, there was a lower percentage of caterpillars the following year compared to eggs found in the previous year (caterpillar survivorship) in burned plots (0.36%) than unburned plots (9.4%). In 1994, five experimental sites were established, three containing a paired 120-m2 burn plot and 40-m2 non-burn plot, and two containing only a 120-m2 burn plot. Burn plots were burned in autumn 1994 and 1996. Fender’s blue eggs, caterpillars and adults were counted in spring 1995–1997.

    Study and other actions tested
  7. A site comparison study in 1988–2003 in a raised bog in Ceredigion, UK (Fowles et al. 2004) reported that a burned bog had fewer rosy marsh moth Coenophila subrosea caterpillars than an unburned bog. Results were not tested for statistical significance. For 2–5 years after burning, caterpillars were scarce in the burned area (0–3 individuals/year) compared to the unburned area (6–24 individuals/year). From 6–9 years after burning, numbers were similar in burned (5–13 individuals/year) and unburned (6–15 individuals/year) areas. From 10–14 years after burning, the burned area had 6–24 individuals/year compared to 2–17 individuals/year on the unburned area. From 16–17 years after burning, the burned area had 16–38 individuals/year compared to 33–50 individuals/year on the unburned area. From 1968, fire frequency was reduced on a raised bog, and the last burn occurred in 1974. In February 1986, two-thirds of the bog was accidentally burned. In late May 1988–2003, caterpillars were counted once/year, at night, in seven 15 × 1 m plots in the burned area and seven in the unburned area.

    Study and other actions tested
  8. A replicated, site comparison study in 2005 in 87 remnant prairies in Kansas, USA (Powell et al. 2007) found that recently burned prairies had fewer regal fritillaries Speyeria idalia than prairies which had not been burned for at least a year. There were fewer regal fritillaries on prairies which had been burned since the last growing season (0.9 individuals/100 m) than on prairies which were unburned in that time (3.2 individuals/100 m). However, the presence of fritillaries at a site was similar between burned (16/21 sites) and unburned (54/66 sites) prairies. Eighty-seven tallgrass prairie remnants (0.9–53.9 ha) were managed by either burning (usually in April), cutting once/year in July, or grazing. In June 2005, signs of recent fire were used to classify sites at recently burned (since autumn 2004) or unburned in that time. In June 2005, regal fritillaries were surveyed along transects (130–1,300 m long), >30 m from the edge of the prairie.

    Study and other actions tested
  9. A replicated, randomized, controlled, before-and-after study in 2007–2009 on a mixed farm in Mississippi, USA (Dollar et al. 2013) found that burning grass field margins did not increase the abundance or species richness of either disturbance-tolerant or grassland butterflies. The abundance and species richness of 18 disturbance-tolerant butterfly species was similar on burned (abundance: 4–11 individuals; richness: 6–7 species) and undisturbed (abundance: 4–14 individuals; richness: 6–8 species) grass field margins. The abundance and species richness of 14 grassland butterfly species also remained similar in burned (abundance: 0.3–1.3 individuals; richness: 1–3 species) and undisturbed (abundance: 0.5–1.3; richness: 1–3 species) margins. See paper for details of individual species. In spring 2004, grass margins were sown with a seed mix of common prairie species. Ten fields (containing 26 margins) were randomly assigned to one of two treatments: burning and no disturbance. Within each burning field, one margin was burned in spring 2008 and a different margin was burned in spring 2009. From June–August 2007–2009, butterflies were surveyed six times/year along three 50-m transects in the centre of each margin.

    Study and other actions tested
  10. A replicated, site comparison study in 1988–1997 in 37 tallgrass prairies in Iowa, Minnesota and North Dakota, USA (Swengel and Swengel 2014) found that after burning, haying and idling management, Powershiek skipperling Oarisma poweshiek abundance differed depending on site vegetation characteristics. In undegraded uplands with diverse vegetation, by one type of average (mean) Poweshiek skipperling abundance was higher at sites managed with burning (17 butterflies/km) than haying (4 butterflies/km) or those left idling (3 butterflies/km), but by another type of average (median) abundance was lower at sites with burning (0 butterflies/km) than haying (2 butterflies/km) or idling (3 butterflies/km). However, in undegraded moist prairie, abundance was lower at sites with burning (0–7 butterflies/km) than haying (2–11 butterflies/km) (no data was provided for idling sites). In undegraded uplands with burning management, abundance was highest two to six years after burning (22–36 butterflies/km), and  lowest in the year of burning up to three years after burning (0–3 butterflies/km). Butterfly and habitat management surveys were conducted at 37 sites in northern Iowa, western Minnesota and eastern Dakota in June–August 1988–1997. Not all sites were surveyed for the whole period or every year. Surveys were of varying lengths and conducted simultaneously along one set of parallel transects (5–10 m apart) in each site. These butterfly counts were combined with a butterfly survey dataset from another researcher team, which overlapped in location, and adjusted to account for differences in survey methods (survey details and sites for this dataset were not provided).

    Study and other actions tested
  11. A review in 2015 of 126 studies in Europe (Bubová et al. 2015) reported that occasional burning on grassland benefitted 10 out of 67 butterfly species of conservation concern. Results were not tested for statistical significance. The review reported that seven studies found that occasional burning benefitted 10 butterfly species (large heath Coenonympha tullia, woodland grayling Hipparchia fagi, rock grayling Hipparchia hermione, tree grayling Hipparchia statilinus, Iolas blue Iolana iolas, large blue Phengaris arion, scarce large blue Phengaris teleius, zephyr blue Plebejus pylaon, Piedmont anomalous blue Polyommatus humedasae, Kolev’s anomalous blue Polyommatus orphicus). The authors suggested that negative short-term impacts of burning can be reduced by leaving small areas of land unburned, and by burning in winter or early spring (data not presented). Meadows were burned in different patterns and at different times of year. The review focussed on 67 butterfly species of conservation concern. The available information was biased towards studies in Northern and Western Europe.

    Study and other actions tested
  12. A replicated, site comparison study in 2015–2016 in two grassland reserves in North Dakota, USA (Bendel et al 2018) found that burning patches of pasture did not affect butterfly community composition, but did affect the species richness and abundance of individual species, compared to management by rotational grazing, rotational grazing with mowing, and season-long grazing. Patch-burning did not affect butterfly community composition compared to other management (data presented as model results). One out of nine species (purplish copper Lycaena helloides) was more abundant in patch-burned pastures, while three species (meadow fritillary Boloria bellona, regal fritillary Speyeria idalia and small pearl-bordered fritillary Boloria selene) were less abundant in patch-burned pastures than other management, and five species had a similar abundance between management types (see paper for details). Twenty-six butterfly species were recorded in patch-burned grazed pastures, compared to 30 species in rotationally grazed pastures, 25 species in rotationally grazed pastures with mowing and 22 species in season-long grazed pastures (statistical significance not assessed). Eight pastures (54–484 ha) managed under one of four management practices (patch-burn grazing, rotational grazing, rotational grazing with lowland mowing, season-long grazing) were selected. One-third of each patch-burn pasture was burned in the dormant season, but prior to April 2015 these sites were rotationally grazed. All other sites had the same management for at least a decade. Rotational pastures were sub-divided into four paddocks, each grazed twice/season. In mown pastures, sedge-dominated patches were cut once/summer. On season-long pastures cattle were free to select grazing areas. Pastures were stocked with cattle (0.5–0.75 cow-calf pairs/ha) from May–October. From June–August 2015 and 2016, butterflies were surveyed three times/year along twelve 100-m transects/pasture.

    Study and other actions tested
  13. A replicated, randomized, paired, controlled study in 2011–2014 in four upland prairies in Oregon, USA (Warchola et al. 2018) found that prescribed burning in autumn initially reduced the amount of Fender’s blue caterpillar damage, but then the number of eggs and amount of caterpillar damage in burned areas was higher than in unburned areas for two years after burning, although the overall population decreased in both areas. In the first spring after burning, fewer Kincaid’s lupine Lupinus oreganus and spur lupine Lupinus arbustus plants had damage from Fender’s blue caterpillars, per egg found the previous June, in burned plots (0.1 leaves/egg) than in unburned plots (0.3 leaves/egg). However, the following year, there were more damaged leaves in burned (1.2 leaves/egg) than unburned (0.7 leaves/egg) plots, but there was no difference by the third year after burning (burned: 0.3 leaves/egg; unburned: 0.3 leaves/egg). For two years after burning, there were also more eggs in June, per caterpillar found in April, in burned plots (67–68 eggs/caterpillar) than in unburned plots (48–49 eggs/caterpillar), but by the third year after burning the number was similar in burned (26 eggs/caterpillar) and unburned (25 eggs/caterpillar) plots. However, the population declined by 78% in the burned areas and 83% in the unburned areas (statistical significance not assessed). In October 2011, half of each of four prairies was burned (0.07–0.21 ha burned), and the remaining area was not burned. In June 2011–2014, Fender’s blue eggs were surveyed in twenty 1-m2 plots/patch (160 plots total) with ≥30% cover of lupine. In April 2012–2014, the number of caterpillars was estimated by counting the number of lupine leaves with characteristic Fender’s blue feeding damage.

    Study and other actions tested
Please cite as:

Bladon A.J., Bladon, E. K., Smith R.K. & Sutherland W.J. (2023) Butterfly and Moth Conservation: Global Evidence for the Effects of Interventions for butterflies and moths. Conservation Evidence Series Synopsis. University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.

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Butterfly and Moth Conservation

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Butterfly and Moth Conservation
Butterfly and Moth Conservation

Butterfly and Moth Conservation - Published 2023

Butterfly and Moth Synopsis

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