Final flutter for Britain's most endangered butterfly?

| 29th January 2018
Two butterflies

The High Brown Fritillary, the UK’s rarest and most endangered butterfly, has been thrown a lifeline.

National Trust
The population of High Brown Fritillaries in Britain has declined rapidly, due to changes in woodland management and, more recently, the abandonment of marginal hill land. But one charity hopes to save this precious winged insect. HARRY SHEPHERD from the National Trust reports

We are dedicated to protecting struggling wildlife like the High Brown Fritillary, and saving our beautiful countryside for future generations. Policy-makers and supporters have key roles in helping us to achieve that ambition.

The rarest and most endangered butterfly in Britain - the High Brown Fritillary - has been thrown a lifeline for 2018 in a new conservation project by the National Trust and its partners.

The charity is embarking on ambitious plans to develop 60 hectares of lowland heath and wood pasture – the butterfly’s principle habitat – to give it a fighting chance for the future. The project has been made possible as part of a £750,000 award made to the Trust by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.

Over the last 50 years, Britain's population of High Brown Fritillaries has declined rapidly, due to changes in woodland management and, more recently, the abandonment of marginal hill land.

Natural landscape

Butterflies, including the High Brown Fritillary, need large areas of the countryside to survive in good numbers, and their populations have struggled where these habitats have been overwhelmed by pressures from agriculture and development.

Now, climate change and nitrogen deposition from the atmosphere are almost certainly contributing to the High Brown’s demise. Overall, the UK population has declined by 66% since the 1970s.

The exquisite Heddon Valley, on the Exmoor coast, is one of the few remaining strongholds where the Trust, with partners including Butterfly Conservation, has been working for years to save the species from extinction.

The £100k project will focus on restoring parts of the natural landscape along the Exmoor and North Devon coast to make it more suitable for the butterfly. Other wildlife including the Heath Fritillary, Nightjar and Dartford warbler will also benefit. High Brown Fritillaries can also be found on Dartmoor, in South Lakeland, Cumbria and at Morecambe Bay, Lancashire.

Matthew Oates, National Trust nature expert and butterfly enthusiast, said: “We’ve witnessed a catastrophic decline of many native butterfly populations in recent decades but initiatives like this can really help to turn the tide. Combined with increased recording and monitoring efforts, there is significant hope for some of our most threatened winged insects.

Reverse the declines

“The support we have from players of People’s Postcode Lottery for nature conservation, alongside continued support for Heritage Open Days, is a wonderful boost to our work in 2018.”

Clara Govier, Head of Charities at People’s Postcode Lottery, said: ‘We are thrilled that funding from players of  People’s Postcode Lottery to the National Trust has increased in 2018, supporting the charity’s nature programme for the first time, alongside continued support for Heritage Open Days.

"We are delighted to see players’ funding supporting significant conservation activity across England and Wales to improve a range of priority habitats, from coastal slopes and chalk grasslands, to woodland pasture, and to safeguard species that call these places home."

Jenny Plackett, Butterfly Conservation's Senior Regional Officer, said: "We’ve been working with the National Trust for many years to reverse the declines in the High Brown Fritillary on Exmoor, and I'm thrilled that players of People’s Postcode Lottery are supporting important management work in this landscape.

"Exmoor's Heddon Valley supports the strongest population of High Brown Fritillary in England, but even here the butterfly remains at risk, and ongoing efforts to restore habitat and enable the butterfly to expand are crucial to its survival."

As well as helping secure the future of High Brown Fritillaries, the £750k award from players of People’s Postcode Lottery will be used to fund several other National Trust conservation projects, along with continuing support for Heritage Open Days.

The National Trust is working with its tenants and partners to reverse the alarming decline in UK wildlife, aiming to restore 25,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat by 2025.

Matthew Oates added: “We are dedicated to protecting struggling wildlife like the High Brown Fritillary, and saving our beautiful countryside for future generations. Policy-makers and supporters have key roles in helping us to achieve that ambition.”

This Author

Harry Shepherd is a spokesperson for the National Trust.