Churchill's final mission is completed

The butterfly house where Sir Winston would indulge his passion for breeding rare insects has been rebuilt

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It was 1939 and the Nazi menace threatened Europe. But while Britain clamoured for the leadership of Winston Churchill, the thoughts of the great warrior himself were focused on an altogether more pacific subject: butterflies.

Like many Victorian children, the young Churchill had been an avid lepidopterist, collecting and pinning specimens from the then-teeming fields around his prep school in the 1880s. It was a hobby he had returned to periodically throughout his adventurous life, his interest stimulated by travels through South Africa, India and Cuba.

Yet it was on the eve of war as he sat at home at Chartwell awaiting the nation's call to arms that he was to return to this childhood passion with an unexpected fervour.

In the end, Churchill had to put his grand plans to reintroduce some of the lost British species of butterfly to his Kent estate on hold until after 1945. But it was a mission he was to resume as soon as the conflict ended. Now more than half a century later his breeding efforts are being recreated by the National Trust in the grounds of the red-brick Victorian country house where he lived until his death in 1965. The old summerhouse which he converted into a butterfly sanctuary has been revived with breeding cages.

Visitors will be able to experience the butterfly garden with its insect-friendly lavender borders – thought to be the oldest of their kind in existence – as well as the vast buddleia jungles just as they were in the 1940s and 1950s when the Churchills used to throw magnificent garden parties in which they would buy in hundreds of butterfly specimens from the renowned dealer L Hugh Newman.

Matthew Oates, the National Trust conservation adviser, said Churchill had first contacted Newman, a towering figure in the butterfly world, in 1939 after he had moved his business within five miles of Chartwell. Newman persuaded an eager Churchill to attempt to reintroduce species such as the black-veined white and the European swallowtail and to convert the under-used summer house. Sadly, unlike Churchill's war-time premiership, his attempts at conservation were far from a glorious victory.

Mr Oates said: "Their relationship was one firmly based around butterflies. I feel a bit sorry for him. He started off with a plan to breed species which were native to southern England but then rather overreached himself with these attempts which ended in rather spectacular failure," he said.

Since Churchill's death half a dozen butterfly species have disappeared altogether from the Weald of Kent and populations of those that remain have more than halved in number. The new breeding attempts, which will concentrate on common indigenous species only, will do nothing to restore depleted populations which have been ravaged by the 20th century's avaricious consumption of habitats for farming and building.

Instead they are intended to give a more authentic historical experience for visitors to the estate.

More serious conservation work is taking place amid the swaths of grassland in the grounds, which are being left unmown through the growing season in an attempt to stimulate insect numbers.

It is what the great man would have wanted, said Mr Oates. "I would argue very strongly that Churchill was a pioneer wildlife gardener, and view him as a bit of a champion of wildlife and butterflies," he added.

Piers Brendon, former keeper of the Churchill Archives, said that while the former prime minister had a passion for animals – especially goldfish – little was known about his interest in butterflies. It may have been one of the interests including painting, gardening and bricklaying which he used to keep his depression at bay.

"What links all these interests was the concern that if he remained unoccupied for very long he would be tormented by the black dog of depression that was always snapping on his heels. These were displacement activities that played a psychological role" he said.

Churchill's favourites

Peacock

This feature of summer gardens camouflages itself against tree trunks and can face down predators such as mice by hissing and flashing its striking eyes found on its hindwings.

Small Tortoiseshell

Churchill used hundreds of tortoiseshells to add colour to his garden parties at Chartwell. It has declined in recent years. One theory is that numbers may be affected by a parasitic fly which thrives in warmer, wetter conditions.

European swallowtail

A rare migrant from the continent is related to Britain's largest and rarest butterfly. Churchill tried and failed to breed the species at Chartwell.

Painted Lady

A North African visitor which makes a late summer migration to Britain when it's numbers become unsustainable in their native habitat.

Black-veined White

Large white butterfly first recorded in the 17th century but which disappeared in Britain around 1925. The reason for its disappearance is unclear, but it most likely fell victim to disease or predation. Churchill's efforts to establish it at Chartwell failed.

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