ICI becomes the butterflies' friend

The chemicals giant ICI yesterday became the first corporate sponsor of two highly endangered British butterfly species under an initiative to rescue 116 threatened native plant and animal species.

The scheme was launched last year as a joint effort between the Government and the country's leading wildlife charities. Signing up commercial ``champions'' who will provide money to fund rescue plans for individual species is taking longer than had been hoped.

ICI has chosen to back the large blue butterfly and the pearl-bordered fritillary with pounds 110,000 spread over two years. The money will pay for work in the field by Butterfly Conservation, a charity.

The large blue is a pretty butterfly with a savage life-cycle. Its caterpillars mimic the grubs of one species of red ant, which is fooled into carrying the butterfly larvae into its nest.

Once inside the caterpillar eats all the soft, small ant grubs, using large jaws which burst them open. Then, having wiped out most or all of the nest's inhabitants, it turns into a chrysalis. The adult butterfly only lives for a few days, during which the females mate and lay their eggs on thyme plants.

Never common in Britain, the large blue declined rapidly during this century and by 1979 had become extinct here. This was because populations of the red ant on which it depends on were also declining, due to changes in farming practices.

But conservationists now know how to manage land in a way which boosts the ant's population. Like the sun-loving pearl-bordered fritillary, it needs plenty of warmth and it finds this on heavily grazed, south-facing slopes. The large blue has now been successfully reintroduced at a few secret locations in the West Country, and the rescue plan aims to build up its population and the number of colonies.

The Independent and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have published an illustrated paperback on Britain's endangered wildlife and the 116 rescue plans. Going, Going, Gone is available from PO Box 550, Markyate, Herts AL3 8QP for pounds 6.50, of which pounds 1 goes to WWF.