If you have been following recent conservation news on social media you’ll know that this week was an important one for invertebrates. The Chequered Skipper, a butterfly last seen in England in 1976, has been reintroduced to the country as part of the Back From the Brink initiative. The Chequered Skipper project is led by Butterfly Conservation and a team travelled to a site in Belgium earlier in the week where about 40 skippers were captured. These insects were transported back to the UK where they were held overnight in mesh cages at a secret location in order to acclimatise them, then released into the wild. The release was filmed as part of next week’s BBC Springwatch series – look out for it.
The exact location of the reintroduction is secret. However I can tell you that it’s occurred in the Rockingham Forest area of north Northamptonshire, in habitat that (over the past couple of years) has been managed specifically for this reintroduction, in order to create a network of sites across which the species could disperse in the future. This area was the last stronghold of the species in England prior to its extirpation. No one knows why it went extinct here, but hung on and did well in Scotland, but it may relate to climate: 1976, as many of the middle-aged will remember, was a very hot, dry summer, and this butterfly likes it warm and humid.
Yesterday I had the privilege of seeing this reintroduction first hand when I visited the site with my colleague Dr Duncan McCollin. Duncan and I are supervising a PhD student, Jamie Wildman, along with Prof. Tom Brereton, Head of Monitoring at Butterfly Conservation (BC), and the University of Northampton’s Visiting Professor in Conservation Science. Jamie’s project will focus on understanding the habitat requirements for Chequered Skipper, and monitoring the success of the reintroduction. I’m also hoping that it might be possible for Jamie to assess the role of this species as a pollinator of the plants it visits. Butterflies as pollinators is a very under-researched area.
Here’s a shot of the Four Mus-skipper-teers* just before we set off to help BC volunteers to locate the skippers and record their behaviour:
The day started unpromisingly. It was cool and overcast, and little was flying except some hardy Common Carder Bees. But around lunchtime things began to warm up and gradually the sun broke through and we started to see flying Lepidoptera that we excitedly chased, only to be disappointed by yet another Mother Shipton or Silver Y. But no skippers.
As we encountered some of the BC volunteers who were also tracking the insects we were told that we had “just missed one” or that they “saw one down that ride, we marked the spot”. One volunteer wanted to show me a photo of a Chequered Skipper that he’d just taken “so I could get my eye in”. I politely refused; I wanted to see the real thing and didn’t want to jinx it with a digital preview.
Finally, our efforts were rewarded and we found the first skipper of several we later encountered. The image at the head of this post is that butterfly, a sight that has not been seen in England in more than 40 years. An exciting and privileged encounter. The county Butterfly Recorder, David James (on the right in this next shot), is ecstatic that the reintroduction has occurred “on his patch” but also nervous at the responsibility it represents:
Later we spent time helping Jamie follow a female skipper who was showing egg-laying behaviour, moving slowly for short distances along a shrubby edge, occasionally nectaring on Bugle, and diving deep into the vegetation to (we hope) oviposit on grass leaves:
Although I’ve over-cropped this next image of the skipper on Bugle, I thought I’d leave it as I like the different textures and patterns, and the slightly blurry ambience:
The primary aim of Butterfly Conservation’s project is to return a small part of England’s lost biological heritage. But it’s about more than just the Chequered Skipper. It’s also about understanding how managing a network of sites for this flagship species can benefit other organisms. The wide woodland rides that have been created are packed with plant species, amongst them at least five grasses that could be used as caterpillar food sources for the skippers, plus more than 20 nectar sources were flowering that they (and other flower visiting insects) could use. Those other insects were plentiful too: over the day I spotted five species of bumblebees, several different day flying moths, lots of Dark-edged Bee Flies, and a few different solitary bees and syrphids flies. We heard calling cuckoos, and four different warblers: chiffchaffs, garden warbler, whitethroats, and blackcaps. Red kites (another incredibly successful species reintroduction) floated overhead skimming the treetops as they their cried to one another.
Rockingham Forest is a lovely part of Northamptonshire, well worth a visit. The Chequered Skipper will be a wonderful addition to its biodiversity. Of course there are no guarantees that the reintroduction part of the project will be a success, but if it isn’t it won’t be because of a lack of commitment from the people involved. If the population does become established then in the future the location will be made public and butterfly enthusiasts will be able to come and pay homage to one of the few butterflies with a pub named after it.
*You get the puns you deserve on this blog…..