The vanishing small blue: why butterfly is starving

A A A

Little bigger than a 10p piece, one of Britain's smallest butterflies is fighting for existence on the most northerly edge of its range.

Although common among the sheltered open spaces of Europe, from northern Spain to Scandinavia, and across Asia and Mongolia, the small blue, aka Cupido minimus, is just about clinging on to life in the north of Scotland.

As one of nature's most fussy eaters, the tiny creature eats only the yellow flowers of the kidney vetch plant which often grows among sheltered grasslands along the coastal areas of Britain, in man-made habitats such as quarries, gravel pits, road embankments and disused railway lines.

However, increasing pressure from human development, changing agricultural practices and coastal use has driven the tiny butterfly into just a few remaining selected strongholds in the south of England and northern Scotland.

"It is a species which needs open, warm, sunny habitats but, unfortunately, changes to many traditional habitats have meant that the kidney vetch has started to die out in areas and therefore so has the small blue," said Paul Kirkland, the director of Butterfly Conservation Scotland. "The trouble is that with habitats getting smaller with the encroachment of development or forestry the chances of the open patches needed by the small blue being created or preserved is getting smaller all the time."

The dusky butterfly lays eggs the size of pinheads on the yellow flower of the plant and, once hatched, the larvae burrow into the bloom and feed on the growing seeds. Eventually the larvae leave the plant and dig into moss and soil to form chrysalises before emerging the following spring as butterflies to repeat the breeding cycle.

However, changing land use has meant that many of the kidney vetch flowers are being strangled and overshadowed by other, more aggressive plants, leaving colonies of the small blue to die out.

Today, wildlife workers and volunteer conservationists will begin a rescue mission to help bring the tiny butterflies, with a wingspan of little more than an inch, back from the edge of extinction in Scotland.

A Highland Council countryside ranger, John Orr, and volunteers will begin to clear the sand dunes along the coast near Inverness of the plants which threaten to kill off the only food source of the small blue. They will start by clearing out hardier plants such as broom, which threaten vetches by blocking out sunlight which filters through among the sand dunes of the windswept beaches at Nairn.

"The small blue is one of our rarest butterflies and it needs the kidney vetch to survive as its caterpillar won't eat anything else," said Mr Orr. "The plant used to be common along the sand dunes at Nairn east beach but is becoming scarce as whin bushes are shading the existing plants.

"Action has to be taken or we will lose both the vetch plants and the small blue for good. Without the plant it just cannot survive.

"The small blue is a very delicate creature. Individuals can't travel very far, and if there isn't a kidney vetch within about one kilometre of where they emerge from the ground in the spring time then they just can't survive."

Mr Orr said the programme of clearing coastal areas for the small blue is likely to be a rolling project carried out over several years as volunteers try to cover more than nine kilometres of coastline.

"The next stage will be to try to propagate some kidney vetch seeds and plant them in the dunes to try to relocate colonies from other areas around the coast."

PROMOTED VIDEO
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: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there