Marsh Fritillary project launched

Marsh Fritillary (top side)

Marsh Fritillary (top side)

I was interviewed yesterday morning on BBC Radio Berkshire by Henry Kelly, about Sheepdrove Rare Butterfly Project. Henry was surprised to hear that Lambourn is a hotspot for rare butterflies. You can click here to Listen Again for 7 days only (find the interview at 1 hour 8 mins, just after the BeeGees!)

Project purpose

The Marsh Fritillary is the top priority for the Sheepdrove Rare Butterfly Project, which recently won approval from Natural England, and is now supported by an enhanced grant scheme.

The reason why Sheepdrove is making a big effort for Marsh Fritillary, is that it’s on the brink of local extinction with only one colony remaining in Berkshire. A tiny habitat resource, isolated from similar sites that might offer a chance of extra breeding areas, means that the clock is ticking.

What’s more, the founders of Sheepdrove Organic Farm, Peter and Juliet Kindersley, are true Natureheads and find the butterflies of the chalk downland enchanting. They restored a massive slice of land to flower-rich grassland at Bockhampton Down over a decade ago, and now it is ripe for the creation of the right habitat conditions for Marsh Fritillary, plus hopefully also Small Blue and Chalkhill Blue.

Locals please look out!

Last year on BBC Berkshire I initiated an appeal for sightings of this very rare species. Now we’re coming to the season for Marsh Fritillary adults to take to the wing, once again.

CALLING ALL NATURALISTS who have records for the Lambourn Downs and the surrounding countryside! Please tell me about any Marsh Fritillary you see this year – or have seen in the last 30 years. Plus if you know of colonies of the food plant, Devilsbit Scabious, that’s also of interest.

Why? First, because there could be colonies we don’t know about. Second, you can help to identify where they might be able to colonise new sites, and how far they travel from their last known Berkshire breeding site. (Seven Barrows nature reserve, managed by BBOWT).

Your nature records are also very important because the archives held by TVERC (Thames Valley Environment Records Centre) are very short of data. I know, because they searched their files to help us research the project’s potential – and came up with hardly any results. I bet there are amateur naturalists in Oxfordshire and Berkshire whose notebooks list Devilsbit Scabious and it’s rare dependent, the Marsh Fritillary.

What am I looking for?

Let’s face it, an orange-and-brown-coloured butterfly in a chalk grassland habitat could be almost anything, until you’ve taken a closer look…Small Skipper, Gatekeeper, or even the Burnet Companion moth. Once identified properly, you’ll see that Marsh Fritillary is quite distinct from other butterflies.

Marsh Fritillary underside

Marsh Fritillary underside

Adult Marsh Frits are seen from May to July. Their caterpillar food plant is usually Devil’s-bit Scabious and sometimes Small Scabious or Field Scabious. Your best bet is to look for dense and large collections of Devil’s-bit Scabious. Remember that this plant grows in calcareous grassland and wet meadows.

Marsh Fritillary larval web (c) Caroline Bulman

Marsh Fritillary larval web (c) Caroline Bulman

From July to April the big giveaway for Marsh Fritillary caterpillars is the larval web. They emerge and feed together in groups, on a silken tent. They cooperate by sunbathing together to warm their amassed, dark bodies in the sun – and fend off predators by pulsating in formation. (If you see a similar gathering on nettles, this will be Peacock, not Marsh Fritillary.)

Jason Ball @ Natureheads.com – 07719 225965

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One Response to “Marsh Fritillary project launched”

  1. Gwen Griffiths Says:

    beautiful photos!

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