CCI Knowledge-Exchange Student Esme Ashe-Jepson shares how a unique collaboration helped her create impact for nature that can be seen from space

11th March 2024

My studentship has recently come to an end, I handed in my final corrected thesis a few weeks ago. It was a surreal feeling, holding a book with your name on it, containing all the knowledge you have gained over the last four years. A part of me is sad to be finishing, the last four years are filled with memories I will cherish. Long summers spent wading through wildflower meadows, searching for butterflies and caterpillars, many of which few people have ever had the pleasure of finding. Daily picnics among the flowers, the sun on my back. Bringing the whole lab out to do a night survey, looking for rare caterpillars that only come out at night in a field scattered with shining glow-worms, celebrating every find. Getting to know the curious local people and their dogs that wandered past as I was surveying. The number of times I was told by passers-by, ‘if I could do it all again, that is what I’d want to do’. Learning and laughing with my collaborators and colleagues. The experience itself has been wonderful, and altogether we have found some fascinating and unexpected results that can help inform how we manage our nature reserves so that they remain valuable under future climate change. My focus has been on caterpillars, a group so often only thought of as a pest, as a boring but necessary by-product of the more beautiful adult butterfly. My research however has shown how they have unique and interesting behaviours and adaptations, but are also so incredibly vulnerable to change, in need of our protection, and we have so much still left to learn about them. None of this would have been possible without the support of my studentship.

My research would not have been effective without collaboration. Sadly, it is all too common for there to be a disconnect between conservation research and practitioners. Much of conservation research is not turned into meaningful action, and I believe this stems from a lack of communication and collaboration. By supporting the collaboration between myself as a researcher and the Wildlife Trust as my collaborators,  this studentship enabled us to build a project that was united in scope and goal and was successful through the sharing of knowledge and expertise. Many of my collaborators have worked on my study sites for years, are familiar with every nook and cranny, know by heart the favourite spots of each butterfly species. Their knowledge and dedication to protecting our landscapes is inspiring, and I’m proud to be able to support their hard work with innovative concepts and highly relevant results.

This studentship gave me the capacity to push the boundaries of what is possible in conservation. One of my key findings was the importance of structure and microclimate for insect conservation, for example topographical diversity. However, it is not usually possible to change the shape of the land, and so I advocate for prioritising land with naturally occurring topographical diversity when choosing where to protect. But what if it is possible to change the shape of landscapes? With my collaborators at the Wildlife Trust, we built a series of large ‘butterfly banks’ across a number of their nature reserves undertaking continuous monitoring before and after to quantify their impact. Dubbed the ‘Banking on Butterflies’ project it was a world first of this scale. This will perhaps be the only project I will ever be a part of where our impact can be seen from space! Our goal was to show how even relatively small topographical changes can be valuable for insects, and indeed our preliminary data seems to show exactly that. The Banking on Butterflies project will continue on into the future, long beyond my PhD, a legacy of our collaboration. I hope many students will come and go learning on those banks. I am incredibly lucky to have been a part of this studentship and project, I am grateful to all the people I’ve met and proud of the goals we have achieved together. I leave Cambridge with a heavy heart but look forward to perhaps working together again one day.

Find out more about Esme Ashe-Jepson work and that of other CCI Knowledge Exchange Students on the  CCI website here.

Esme’s recently published papers can be reviewed here: