Gotcha! How we found one of Britain's smallest, brightest butterflies

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Our Great British Butterfly Hunt heads for the South Downs

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Butterflies don't have to be large and spectacular to be attractive, as we found when The Independent's Great British Butterfly hunt turned its attention to some of the smaller members of our butterfly fauna – with considerable success.

We headed for Butser Hill near Petersfield in Hampshire, at 888ft the highest point on the South Downs. It is not only a well-known beauty spot and a magnet for walkers but also a magnificent site for the wildlife which flourishes on the downs' chalk grassland – the wild flowers, and the butterflies too.

Butser Hill is home to more than 30 butterfly species, but we were seeking three in particular, profiled here: the Duke of Burgundy, the grizzled skipper and the dingy skipper. These three are not only among the smallest of our butterflies, they are increasingly rare, with the Duke of Burgundy now so uncommon and declining so fast that it is one of our most threatened species.

It is not an easy insect to find, so we enlisted the expert help of Dr Dan Hoare of the charity Butterfly Conservation and Steve Peach, the conservation ranger of Queen Elizabeth Country Park in which Butser Hill is sited. But although the weather on this May morning had been glorious at the start, on arrival at Butser Hill it had been transformed: a sea fog had rolled in from the south coast, 10 miles away, and the hill top was lost in misty swirls like a peak in the Lake District. Butterfly-hunting felt hopeless.

Paradoxically, however, that turned out to be fortunate, for in the cool air all insects were inactive, and the two skippers, which normally fly so fast you can hardly see them, could be found on their roosting perches – and examined at close quarters. Deep in the downs, on a scrubby side of an isolated valley, Dan Hoare found a grizzled skipper roosting on a dead flowerhead, and Steve Peach found a dingy skipper on a hawthorn bush. Both were torpid and, helped by a puff of breath, came on to our fingers, where we could admire their intricate patterning.

Yet the real prize was the Duke of Burgundy (no one seems to know how it got its name, by the way – any information would be welcome). The steep valley still holds good numbers of the insects, which lay their eggs on the leaves of the bright yellow cowslips flowering amid the hawthorn scrub (which is important to shelter the butterflies from the wind). None were visible while the temperature was down, but on the stroke of 1pm the sun pierced the mist and insects started to appear, first bees and hoverflies, and then with a shout from Dan Hoare of "Here's one!" we found what we were looking for.

Peering close up at a resting Duke of Burgundy I saw a miniature animal so bright in the lattice-work of orange and black on its wings that I had the impression of a brilliant, freshly minted postage stamp. In the sunshine, others began to fly, and altogether we saw 14: an impressive total for one of the rarest creatures in the British Isles.

The three species we found took our total in the Great British Butterfly Hunt, our attempt to see all 58 native British species in a year, to 11. Forty-seven to go.

The Great BritishButterfly HuntSpecies 13, 14 & 15 (of 58)

In the fifth of our status reports, we look at three small spring butterflies now on the wing, all of which are dropping in number. Once far more common, the Duke of Burgundy and the two skippers are now mostly found in small colonies on the chalk downs of southern England.

13. Grizzled skipper (Pyrgus malvae)

The skipper family are tiny, fast-flying, almost moth-like butterflies which "skip" from flower to flower. This speckled insect is typical: its acrobatics are so fast that its flight is almost impossible to follow. But when at rest it is an attractive butterfly, easy to identify, as it is darker than the other skippers – so dark it appears black and white.

Larval food plants: Wild strawberry is a principal food plant, although others are used, including tormentil and agrimony.

Where seen: Now mainly a species of wildflower meadows and chalk downland in southern England.

Current conservation status: Increasingly worrying, now quite rare. Down 43 per cent since 1976.

14. Dingy skipper (Erynnis tages)

As its name might suggest, this is one of the more inconspicuous of Britain's butterflies, its grey-brown wings with mottled brown markings making it much less bright to the eye than the grizzled skipper. Like its grizzled cousin it flies so fast that it can become a blur. At rest it folds its wings flat like a moth, the only British butterfly to do so.

Larval food plants: Bird's foot trefoil and horseshoe vetch. Hard hit by the effect of intensive farming on grassland.

Where seen: A wide range of habitats from downland to woodland rides and old railway lines.

Current conservation status: Dropping notably in numbers, although still more widespread than the grizzled skipper. Down 40 per cent since 1976.

15. Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina)

This diminutive, feisty insect is one of Britain's most rapidly disappearing butterflies. Having all but vanished from a former habitat, woodland clearings, it is now found mainly on downland. It is the only representative in Britain of a huge butterfly family, the Riodinidae, or metalmarks, which in the tropics contains spectacular species. Although hardly spectacular, this orange and brown creature is prettily patterned and a very active flyer.

Larval food plants: The primula family – primroses in woods, cowslips on downland.

Where seen: Scattered colonies now mainly found on chalk downs in southern England and on limestone grassland further north.

Current conservation status: Giving great cause for concern. Decline of 35 per cent since 1979 from an already low base. Now thought to be fewer than 100 colonies in the whole country.

The Independent's Great British Butterfly Hunt aims to offer a glimpse of the beauty and fragility of our rich natural heritage. And for those of our readers with a competitive edge, we offer a competition. The aim: to see as many of our native butterfly types as possible. The prize is an afternoon tracking the most elusive, the brown hairstreak, with Dr Martin Warren. The winner's rail travel expenses within the UK will be covered and lunch provided. Simply send us, by Monday 17 August, 12pm, your butterfly diary. Briefly list each native species you see; the date and time; and the exact location. And please add one very brief description (no more than 250 words) of your butterfly hunt. The judges will take into account the number of species spotted and also the description.

Enter by post (Butterfly Hunt, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS) or email ( british butterflies@independent.co.uk). The winner will be announced in the newspaper. For terms and conditions please see independent.co.uk/comprules or send an SAE.

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