Last chance to see chequered gems heading for extinction

Fritillaries are wonders of nature – can we find them before they disappear forever?

A A A

Today The Independent's Great British Butterfly Hunt turns its attention to a butterfly family that contains some of our rarest and most rapidly-declining species, the fritillaries.

An unusual name: and it stands for what these lovely insects all have in common, a chequered pattern of orange and black on their wings. The name fritillary comes from the Latin fritillus, meaning dice-box, although there is some dispute as to whether it refers to a chequered pattern on the side of such a box, or the dots on the dice themselves.

For several hundred years it has denominated a family of butterflies, and also a family of flowers bearing a similar chequered pattern, such as the snake's head fritillary, one of our scarcest and most beautiful plants, which is now found in only a few places (although it does grow in thousands in a famous "fritillary meadow" in Cricklade, Wiltshire).

The fritillary butterflies are spread across Britain, but some have become every bit as rare as their wildflower namesakes. There are 50 species in Europe; in Britain we have eight of them, and on Friday of last week The Independent went in search of the earliest ones to appear in the butterfly season, the pearl-bordered and the small pearl-bordered fritillaries, and the marsh fritillary.

All these insects are declining and have vanished from many of their former haunts, so to seek them out we went to a big wood near Salisbury which is run by a charitable conservation trust largely with the interests of butterflies in mind. We were not disappointed: in a carefully-managed scrubby clearing we found both pearl-bordered and small pearl-bordered fritillaries flying together, some of Britain's prettiest and scarcest insect species, fluttering in profusion in the warm May sunshine.

Later, in a damp clearing in another part of the wood, we found the even more attractive marsh fritillary, with its vivid wing pattern of orange and yellow stripes.

In the course of looking for fritillaries, we also managed to see five other new species not so far recorded this year: the large white and the green-veined white (which we profiled on 10 April) plus Adonis blue, small heath and painted lady (which will be profiled at a future date). So in our quest to see all 58 British breeding species of butterfly in a single summer, the eight new species bring our tally to 19; 39 to go.

The GreatBritishButterfly Hunt: Species 16, 17&18 (of 58)

In our sixth report, we profile three butterflies from the same family: the pearl-bordered and small pearl-bordered fritillaries lay their eggs on violets; the marsh fritillary lays on devil's-bit scabious. Apart from the Glanville fritillary, on the Isle of Wight, these are the earliest fritillaries to appear.

16. Pearl-bordered fritillary

Boloria euphrosyne. Orange-and-black chequerboard pattern. The first of the fritillaries to be seen, visible from mid-April. The "pearls" are the row of seven silvery dots on the edge of the lower underwing; it has a single row, whereas the small pearl-bordered has two.

Larval food plants: violets (principally the common dog violet) among dead bracken or leaf-litter, which absorb the sun's heat to provide a warm microclimate.

Where seen: woodland glades, clearings, edges and rides, where violets grow amidst the bracken and scrub. Flutters low over the ground.

Conservation status: One of Britain's most-threatened butterflies. Seventy per cent decrease since 1976; now found in scattered colonies mainly in the west.

17. Small pearl-bordered fritillary

Boloria selene. Smaller and darker than its relative the pearl-bordered, with a different underwing pattern, it appears three weeks later, from early May onwards. Recent research revealed it has a very different ecology, being much better able to tolerate cooler and more open conditions.

Larval food plants: violets, growing in grassy clearings and rides.

Where seen: open areas like mountain grasslands, moors. Widely distributed in the West Country, Wales and Scotland.

Conservation status: declining steeply, down 65 per cent since 1976.

18. Marsh fritillary

Euphydryas aurinia. One of the brightest of Britain's butterflies, being striped rather than spotted or chequered, with orange, yellow and black bands contrasting vividly on its wings. It is mainly a butterfly of wet grassland, and the drainage of many fields for the intensification of farming, especially in eastern England, has led to a major decline in its numbers.

Larval food plants: devil's bit scabious (a wild flower with a pale blue head).

Where seen: damp meadows and grasslands in the west.

Conservation status: a huge plunge in numbers of nearly 70 per cent before the 1980s, but careful conservation work has brought it back, with a 48 per cent increase since 1983.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Sport
Jonatahn Sexton scores a penalty
rugby
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
weird news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?