Zoë Randle: The Butterfly (and Moth) Effect

Butterfly Conservation Survey Officer Zoë Randle talks to Conservation Careers Blogger Charlotte Rixon about why moths and butterflies matter, meeting Sir David Attenborough and dispelling those jumper-munching myths.

zoe randle1

How did you get into conservation? 

I got into conservation by lucky accident. I’d never wanted to go to university, because as far as I was concerned it was for squares, but I reluctantly enrolled on a business information technology degree at Bournemouth University. I did not enjoy the course at all and unsurprisingly at the end of my first year, I failed a resit exam. That summer, while I was wondering what to do next, I worked in the office of a sand and gravel quarry and became fascinated by Sand Martins and lizards nesting and burrowing in the sand. It reminded me of how, while growing up in the Dorset countryside, I had loved seeing Lapwings in the fields and Starlings congregating on the wires, swooping and chitter-chattering before they migrated for the winter.

Then I spotted a university prospectus for a course on environmental protection. There was a picture on the cover of people in wellies standing on a refuse tip holding clipboards, and it looked a lot more me. I had to go through clearing and got in by the skin of my teeth. I absolutely loved it!

What key steps have you taken during your career? 

Each summer during my degree, I did voluntary work for the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology in Furzebrook where I identified crop pests and studied ant population dynamics. After graduating, I did casual work for the Institute of Freshwater Ecology, which merged with the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology in 2000 to form the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH). My work involved surveying rivers all over the country, including Wales, the Scottish Highlands and the Inner Hebrides.

After one of my stints as a casual, I got to spend six months in the Caribbean, educating school kids about sea turtles and coral reefs, which was amazing. When I returned to the UK, I got a job with CEH on the Farm Scale GM crop project.

What drew you to moths and butterflies? 

I think butterflies and moths are special because they are accessible to everyone. People come across them in their houses, gardens, parks etc; they are a gateway into noticing and appreciating nature. Not to mention that they are an important part of our biodiversity, vital in the food chain for bats and birds, and very important plant pollinators. Butterflies and moths are also good indicator species, as they respond rapidly to environmental change. So if they’re doing well (or badly), other species are likely to be responding similarly.

I did my PhD on Large Blue butterflies, which trick their way into ant nests by giving off similar pheromones as ant grubs. When CEH Dorset closed in 2007 due to Government cutbacks I decided it was time for a change, so I applied for a job at Butterfly Conservation as Moth Recording Co-ordinator and got it. Since then my role has developed and I am now the Surveys Officer.

Large Blue by Peter Eeles.

Large Blue by Peter Eeles.

What does your job involve? 

I coordinate the National Moth Recording Scheme (NMRS) and the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey (WCBS).

The WCBS aims to provide an indication of the health of nature by assessing the changing status of butterflies in the general countryside, including farmland and urban green spaces, using a robust sampling framework. The NMRS does the same for macro-moths by bringing together sightings from thousands of volunteers across the UK, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands into one huge national database.

My job is to compile the data, co-ordinate the national network of County Moth Recorders and Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey recorders, keep volunteers motivated, send out regular newsletters and emails, and organise an annual meeting.

What are the best and worst things about your work? 

One of the great things about my job is getting to raise awareness and educate people about butterflies and moths, especially dispelling the myths about moths being boring, grey, jumper munching pests! I also love getting to travel around the country and work with like-minded people.

I’d say the worst thing is probably the job insecurity and uncertainty about the future of projects; you’re expected to work unpaid for a long time and most schemes only have limited funding.

What is your favourite moth or butterfly and why? 

My favourite moth is the Elephant Hawkmoth because it is big, pink and fluffy – everything you wouldn’t expect in a moth. Elephant Hawkmoths are found in gardens throughout the UK, although most people are probably more familiar with the caterpillars, which are large and grey with big black eye-like spots and a front segment shaped like an elephant’s trunk. Their preferred food is rosebay willowherb, although they do take to fuchsias.

Elephant Hawk-moth by Rachel Scopes.

Elephant Hawk-moth by Rachel Scopes.

What have been the highlights of your career so far? 

One of my proudest achievements was co-authoring the first National Moth Atlas to be produced for thirty years. The Atlas uses the enormous dataset of the NMRS, which currently holds 16.2 million records, to give a picture of the distribution of macro-moths across the country. This is important because if you don’t know where a species is, you can’t save it. We will be publishing a full distribution Atlas for the macro-moths of Britain and Ireland in 2018.

Another career highlight was meeting Sir David Attenborough at the Moths Count project launch in 2007. He asked me if I was a lepidopterist and my reply was “I guess so!” I was totally star-struck!

Sir David Attenborough at Big Butterfly Count launch by Helen Atkinson.

Sir David Attenborough at Big Butterfly Count launch by Helen Atkinson.

What advice would you give to budding conservationists? 

Never give up. I was never first in line for any of the jobs I have done but I persevered and was lucky.

What music are you listening to? 

I’ve been stuck in a folk groove for a long time now, so I’m still listening to Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake.

About the Author

Charlotte Rixon

This post was written by Conservation Careers Blogger Charlotte Rixon. Charlotte is a freelance journalist and writer based in London, who specialises in wildlife, conservation, travel, gardening and all things green and outdoorsy. She has a particular passion for trees and woodland and a complicated relationship with urban foxes.

Conservation Careers Advice Map


Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Wildlife