Epic trip to trace the remotest of our native butterflies

The latest stage of our hunt involves an uncomfortable visit to the Highlands


Travelling 500 miles to be bitten half to death by midges on a Highland hillside seems a high price to pay to see a butterfly the size of your thumbnail; but it has to be paid by anyone who wishes to complete The Independent's Great British Butterfly Hunt.

For the butterfly in question, the chequered skipper, now lives only in Scotland. Other typical Scottish butterflies, such as the mountain ringlet or the Scotch argus, can be found in the Lake District as well, but to set eyes on Carterocephalus palaemon you have to head north of the border. And a long way north, at that.

The effort seems worth it when you finally see this rare creature, the prettiest of all our eight species of skippers (the smallest and most primitive of our butterflies), but finding it is a chancy business.

It lives mainly in the hills of northern Argyll and around Fort William, with a relatively short flight period in late May and June, and it is perfectly possible that on the day or days you have set aside to look for it, the weather will close in with the mist and rain which are never far away in the western Highlands, and the butterfly will be nowhere to be seen.

It seems a paradoxical place for a butterfly to prosper, or as Tom Prescott of Butterfly Conservation Scotland, who went with me on the hunt this week, expressed it: "If you were a butterfly and you could live within 25 miles of any town in Britain would you choose Fort William – the wettest place in the land, where it's always raining?"

But the reason it was there, he said, was that the climate was ideal to support the caterpillar's food plant, purple moor grass.

Although it has never been very common, until 1975 the chequered skipper could be found in England, breeding in several colonies in the East Midlands – indeed, there is a thatched pub called The Chequered Skipper, complete with butterfly sign, in the pretty Northamptonshire village of Ashton, near Oundle (the village where every October the world conker championship is held).

But in the 1970s these colonies declined rapidly until the English insect went extinct – for reasons nobody really understands, although it may have been caused by the planting of conifers in what had been deciduous woodlands. The butterfly's predicament is similar to that of the Glanville fritillary of the Isle of Wight, which we profiled at the start of this week – it now has a very restricted range.

However, the Scottish colonies, which were first found 60 years ago, continue to thrive, and we went to look for the chequered skipper in one of the best known of them, Glasdrum Wood, which rises up steeply from the shore of Loch Creran, in stunning scenery 15 miles north of Oban.

We were lucky with the weather, for there was just enough warmth and sunshine to bring the butterflies out – with the temperature a couple of degrees lower we might not have seen them at all, and it was a very long way to go for nothing – although conditions were also ideal for the great affliction of anybody walking in the Highlands, the Scottish midge.

Luckily Tom had various midge defences with him, the major one being an Avon bath oil called Skin So Soft, which many local inhabitants swear by.

"You see all these hunky highlanders, fencers and dykers, spray this stuff on themselves," Tom said. "If you go into a pub you can tell if folk have been out and about, because you get this scent, like how in student pubs you can smell the cannabis. In the Highlands it's Skin So Soft."

Generous application of it became necessary as we began to climb up through the wood and into a long open glade made for power lines, known as a wayleave, which is ideal habitat for the butterfly, as the midges swarmed about our faces, biting us like billy-o, and eventually there were so many we had to put on midge hoods made of netting – we looked like a pair of bank robbers.

But we found the chequered skipper. In fact, thanks to a couple of other butterfly enthusiasts, David and Kathryn Lambert, we found a mating pair on a hazel leaf, locked in copulation.

Eventually they separated and the female fluttered off to a grass stem and immediately laid a tiny egg, while the male buzzed about with whirring wings so fast he looked momentarily like a bee.

When he came to rest, he was truly an attractive creature, displaying wings which were an alluring combination of brown and sulphur-yellow. This sighting now brings the total number of species we have found in the Great British Butterfly Hunt to 27; 31 to go.

*As a number of readers have noticed, there was a mix up with our butterfly pictures in the feature on the Glanville fritillary last Monday. The picture labelled Glanville fritillary was in fact a large skipper, while the picture labelled large skipper was a small blue. To see the correct pictures click here

In the eighth of our status reports we profile the hardest of all our butterflies to see, the chequered skipper, which now occurs only in the Scottish Highlands.

23. Chequered skipper

This tiny but handsome butterfly requires a serious effort to find, for it has gone extinct in England and is now to be found only in fairly remote parts of the Scottish Highlands. Check the weather forecast before you go; if the sun isn't shining, you may not find it.

Larval food plants In Scotland, purple moor grass. The English insects fed on another grass, wood false brome.

Where seen Now entirely restricted to north-west Scotland, in Inverness and Argyll.

Current conservation status Not enough data to produce a trend, but not thought to be declining in its Scottish breeding sites.

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