Former Rutland butterflies

Sketch of Wall by Badcock

Sketch of Wall by Badcock

In 1972 J C Badcock published In the Countryside of South Leicestershire, in which he described wildlife around Fleckney. Here’s some of what he said about butterflies:

The towpath is frequently visited by one or two members of the Skipper family including both large and small skippers and at times the grizzled skipper, and one or two species of the hairstreaks have been taken from the meadow hedgesides. But perhaps the most ubiquitous butterfly of them all in the warm summer days is the Wall, this two-toned brown insect which seems to tempt us to catch it by dancing a few feet in front of us, then coming to rest for a few moments on the towpath…

And as we draw near to this tantalising butterly it lifts again only to settle once more a little farther along the towpath. It seems as though it were forever luring one away from the gateway which leads to home, a waterside siren that tempts one to spend the rest of the warm sunny day with it.

You’d be lucky to see either Grizzled Skipper or Wall there today, but that’s all the more reason to get out, to watch and to record. Any day now…

High Brown Fritillary, Devon

High Brown Fritillary, Devon

The High Brown Fritillary was last recorded in both Leicestershire and Rutland in the 1950s. Nowadays its English strongholds are all some distance away: near Morecambe Bay, and in parts of Exmoor and Dartmoor.

This weekend we visited the Heddon Valley, Devon, where we enjoyed good views of several High Brown, Dark Green and Silver-washed Fritillaries (along with Golden-ringed Dragonflies) in the sheltered meadows.

Unlike the Dark Green and Silver-washed Fritillaries, High Brown Fritillary seems very unlikely to make an unassisted return to Rutland.

Steep valleys, hanging oakwoods, sheltered meadows: the Devon home of High Brown Fritillary

Steep valleys, hanging oakwoods, sheltered meadows: the Devon home of High Brown Fritillary

Formerly found in Rutland, a search for the Chequered Skipper now requires a 400-mile trip to Argyll. We were fortunate to spend 27-29 May in the area, and were blessed with more than our share of warm, sunny weather.

During our first afternoon at Glasdrum Wood we saw 15-20 Chequered Skippers, along with other butterflies including Pearl-bordered and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries and Small Copper.

Our searches for Marsh Fritillaries were unsuccesful (presumably too early) but on 28 May on Lismore we found a Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth and on 29 May at Shian Wood we found two more Chequered Skippers.

Chequered Skipper, Argyll

Chequered Skipper, Argyll

Chequered Skipper, Argyll

Chequered Skipper, Argyll

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Argyll

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Argyll


Wood White, Northamptonshire

The Wood White was listed for Rutland by Douglas without details. Bouskell gave the last Leicestershire record as from Earl Shilton in 1880, which ties in with its status in Northamptonshire where it had been absent for nearly 20 years in 1908.

During the 1950s it returned to conifer plantations in Northamptonshire, including  Salcey Forest which is one of its strongholds. There have been occasional records from Fermyn Woods, and males do wander, but this species is adversely affected by poor weather during its flight period in May and June, so after this summer we are more likely to see Elvis in Rutland woods than a Wood White.

Duke of Burgundy, Bedfordshire

The Duke of Burgundy is an excellent example of a butterfly whose history is incomplete and poorly known. It was omitted by Douglas, presumably in error since Bouskell stated that it ‘occurs in some numbers’ in Rutland.

There is very little detailed information about its status locally, though Robertson states that it was reported from Owston Wood in 1953. In neighbouring counties, it was found to be declining at Castor Hanglands, Cambridgeshire, during the 1960s; this corresponds with a national decline which may have involved multiple factors as suggested by Paul Tout in his comment on Two lost fritillaries below.

In Northamptonshire a small population was found at Wakerley Wood until 1997, but now we must travel to Bedfordshire (e.g. Totternhoe Knolls) or Gloucestershire (Rodborough Common) to see this attractive little butterfly.

Purple Emperor, Northamptonshire

The Purple Emperor has received more than its fair share of attention, and even has its own website:

It had gone from Leicestershire by the beginning of the 20th century, but Douglas mentions records from Rutland in 1905. Its subsequent disappearance from much of central and eastern England from the 1940s onwards has been attributed to reduction in woodland, and in some areas spraying to eliminate Oak Tortrix moths during the 1960s also contributed.

In Northamptonshire one man devoted much of his time to encouraging its return, with notable success. Denys Watkins-Pitchford (‘BB’) released Purple Emperors into Fermyn Wood during the 1970s. After encouraging signs during the 1980s the population increased significantly during the 1990s and continues to spread.

There is no obvious reason why it should not also return to some of our Rutland woods.

Two more examples of butterflies lost from Rutland are the Silver-studded Blue and Chalkhill Blue, though the latter occurs nearby and might possibly be recorded again.

Silver-studded Blue, Norfolk, July 2012

The Silver-studded Blue was recorded without comment by Douglas. Nationally its range contracted during the 20th century, and It now seems a surprising species to have occurred in Rutland. Nonetheless, it was present in Northamptonshire until 1938. It is possible that ploughing of its habitat after the Second World War may have contributed to its disappearance. The fact that most individuals of this species do not move more than 20 metres during their short lives makes a natural reappearance very unlikely.

The prospects for a modern occurrence of the Chalkhill Blue are more            positive. It was listed by Douglas, and according to Robertson was recorded at Pilton pre-1953. its range contracted nationally in the 1950s following the outbreak of myxomatosis, but there is still a thriving colony at Barnack in Cambridgeshire and there have been modern records from Northamptonshire in 1976, 1982, 1997, 2003 and 2010.

Chalkhill Blue, Cambridgeshire

Horseshoe Vetch, its food plant, is rare in Rutland but has been found at a few sites including Bloody Oaks and Luffenham Heath. Modern records from the Ketton area are a possibility: it should be looked for.