Butterfly under threat on its last island stronghold

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One of Europe's most endangered species of butterfly risks being driven out of its last remaining stronghold by changes in farming methods, conservationists warned yesterday.

One of Europe's most endangered species of butterfly risks being driven out of its last remaining stronghold by changes in farming methods, conservationists warned yesterday.

Already the marsh fritillary has been decimated throughout most of Britain. Remaining colonies in many regions, such as Oxfordshire and Berkshire, are on the verge of extinction, having become too small to survive.

In the past 20 years the species has seen its numbers fall by more than 55 per cent across the country and story has been similar throughout the rest of Europe.

Only on the island of Islay off Scotland's west coast, where traditional low-intensity cattle grazing practices continue as they have done for generations, has the butterfly continued to flourish.

Britain's leading butterfly conservation organisation has joined forces with Islay's farmers to preserve the natural habitat of the fritillary, which is under threat from enforced modern agriculture practices. "It's only in recent years we have realised just how important Islay is for the marsh fritillary," Paul Kirkland of Butterfly Conservation in Scotland said.

"Its natural habitat of damp unimproved meadows have been drained and used for agriculture throughout the rest of the UK and Europe, or abandoned to scrubland. Either way the land becomes unattractive for the rather fussy butterfly.

"The only way to conserve this butterfly is on a landscape scale which is why we need to involve farmers."

Mr Kirkland warned, however, that there were moves on Islay for smaller farms to be merged into bigger ones, which could result in a change of grazing practices, threatening the butterfly's survival.

The biggest threat is if the island's farmers switch from cattle grazing to sheep. The fritillary depends on a single plant, devil's-bit scabious, both to lay its eggs and for food. Unfortunately, sheep are also fond of the plant as a source of nourishment.

But there may be help on the horizon under the European Union-funded Rural Stewardship Scheme, which supports the sort of grazing the butterfly needs by providing compensation for farmers who use more environmentally friendly grazing methods.

However, the share of the money available for Scotland has been described by farmers as "derisory".

With applications amounting to £25m across Scotland for a share of the £1.25m available, the farmers on Islay are less than confident of securing financial assistance to maintain their traditional way of life.

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