In 1976 England lost a species of butterfly as the Chequered Skipper (Carterocephalus palaemon) was declared extinct from it’s heartland in the East Midlands. Once again it seems as though the blame could be placed on habitat loss. This pretty little butterfly requires wide open rides and glades in woodland with plenty of blooms to nectar on and the grass False Brome for it’s caterpillars to eat. The forests were not managed as in the past and huge swathes of non-native pine planted for commercial timber production.
In 1939 colonies of the skipper were discovered in north/west Scotland, some 400+ miles from the English Chequers. There were none in between, just two isolated populations. Although the same species, the Scottish variety lived in a slightly different habitat and they bred on Purple Moor-grass. Here, despite the sometimes adverse weather, the butterfly was doing quite well and over the years more were found in the ancient Oak woods close to lochs (lakes).
A few years ago Butterfly Conservation, Forestry England and the Back from the Brink partnership began to restore the habitat in a large block of woodland in Rockingham Forest Northamptonshire, the last stronghold of the Chequered Skipper. In 2018 adult butterflies were brought over from strong colonies in Belgium and released in the secret site. They bred successfully but more Belgian stock were added in 2019 to help boost numbers. The skippers did well, though numbers were never high (60 recorded in ’21), so early this year Butterfly Conservation revealed the site details so the public could visit and, hopefully, catch a glimpse of this tiny star which has had much media coverage.
I waited excitedly for an opportunity to visit the woods. Last Thursday the weather was perfect and the flight season being May to June I had the best chance of finding one. It’s a big area and ‘needle in a haystack’ sprang to mind. BC were holding guided tours but I don’t like crowds, I much prefer doing things my way. As luck would have it my mate John from Hertfordshire had been the week previous and pinpointed on a map where he found some.
I arrived at the ‘hot spot’ John found and with four other butterfly mad enthusiasts scanned the bramble flowers for our target. After two hours, nothing. It was decided to go to another area the skippers had been seen, quite a hike in the warm sun! When we arrived a skipper was nectaring, relief! My first ever sighting, I was elated.
After sometime and only a couple of other flight views I made my way back to the first spot passing the BC tour en-route, yes far too many people. As I neared the area I could see there was a lot of people watching but obviously nothing to see. A small brownish butterfly flew up the path and landed on a bramble flower next to me. I could not believe my eyes or my luck! An almost perfect specimen. When a cloud covered the sun it flew up onto a grass head and gave me the best images I could have ever wished for, what a little beauty.
Well that was a 200 mile round trip more than worth the cost of fuel and several miles walking worth the sore feet. If the butterflies had not been re-introduced here it would have been a 1000 mile round trip to add it to my British list!