Nature Studies: Isn’t it time the rarest butterfly in the UK became a bit less rare?

To find it, you need to  target an area within a 30-mile radius of Fort William

A A A

Last July, on an annual expedition with some chums to see purple emperor butterflies in a wood near Salisbury which is famous for them, I met a man  who claimed to have accomplished a remarkable feat. He had seen, he said, all 58 breeding species of British butterfly, four summers in a row.

To see them all in one summer is by no means impossible: I did it in 2009 and wrote a series about it for The Independent, which we invited readers to take part in. But it’s by no means easy, and to do it four years on the bounce, as they say in football, is quite an achievement, not least because of the time and money that need to be invested in travelling (this chap could do it because he was retired, and a full-time Lepidoptera-lover).

For several species of British butterfly require a special journey if you’re going to see them in the wild. You want to feast your eyes the swallowtail? You have to go to the Norfolk Broads. The Glanville fritillary? You have to go to the Isle of Wight. The Scotch argus? You have to go to the Scottish Highlands, or at least, to remote parts of the Lake District, and the same applies to the mountain ringlet. And to see the most elusive one of all, the chequered skipper, you have to go, not only to the Highlands, but to a specific area: Argyllshire.

Once, you didn’t. Very small, but one of the prettiest of our butterflies, the chequered skipper could be seen until 1976 in several woods in the English Midlands, especially in the region of Rockingham Forest in Northamptonshire, but that year, for reasons no one understands, it went extinct in England.

I was reminded of this last week by news from the Scottish branch of the charity Butterfly Conservation, that Carterocephalus palaemon is flourishing in its Argyll haunts; indeed a new survey has shown that it is far more widespread than previously thought.

Even so, it’s the hardest British butterfly to see because you not only have to make a special trip to its home range – it occurs solely within a 30-mile radius of Fort William – but for you to set eyes on it,  while you’re there it must not rain, which can be a tall order for Argyllshire in May and June. The winner of our readers’ competition in 2009, Andrew King, ended up seeing 57 of the 58 species, but the chequered skipper was the one which eluded him.

If you can get up north of Oban, though, and find a suitable wayleave, which is an open ride through the hillside birchwoods, cleared for electricity cables, and it does not rain and the sun comes out, you may be rewarded with one of the most uncommon and pleasurable sights in all of British natural history. The wings of the chequered skipper are a beautiful lattice of dark brown over bright sulphur-yellow, and it favours blue flowers to find nectar in, such as bugle and bluebells: if it perches on one such, the colour combination is just fantastic.

I have several times heard people discuss reintroducing the chequered skipper to England, and last week I asked Butterfly Conservation’s Chief Executive, Martin Warren, if his charity had any such plans. It certainly did, he said, but it was a question of finding the funding, because the species occurred at low density over a wide area, so as many as a dozen separate woodlands might have to be specially managed for a reintroduction to work,

Until then, if you want to see the beastie but you can’t get up to Argyll, you have an alternative: The Chequered Skipper pub in Ashton, near Oundle in Northamptonshire. This is the village of the Rothschild estate, and the thatched inn, originally called The Three Horseshoes, was renamed half a century ago by Dame Miriam Rothschild, the eccentric scientist who was our foremost 20th-century authority on butterflies, after what she considered the greatest treasure of the estate.

On the pub walls are old cases full of large tropical butterflies and moths, or there were last time I was in there. And in the bottom right-hand corner of the last case a small brown and sulphur yellow lattice is visible.

It’s a chequered skipper, all right. It’s great. It’s just a pity it’s not perched on a bluebell.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015