Butterflies and sunburn - life as a Lulworth Skipper intern

Fiona Blog

University graduate Fiona Bell has landed what most wildlife-lovers would consider a dream summer job. She will spend the next few weeks pursuing one of our rarest and most charismatic butterflies across one of the UK’s most stunningly attractive landscapes. 

Thanks to funding from the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), Fiona will spend the summer of 2017 as an intern with Butterfly Conservation, traipsing around Dorset’s idyllic Purbeck Hills and coast in pursuit of the Lulworth Skipper.

This blog will follow Fiona on her adventures and to discover what life as a butterfly intern on the Jurassic Coast is all about.

“Butterflies and second-degree burns sum up my first few days as an intern with Butterfly Conservation. I’ve learned that there is no such thing as too much sunscreen when surveying in southern England.

So it was with literally blistering sunburn that I dragged myself up and down the unforgiving, but stunning, Purbeck hills with Butterfly Conservation’s Rachel Jones in search of the Lulworth Skipper.

This butterfly appears to a casual observer as another small brown butterfly but also like many of its cousins, it quickly grows on you. Within days of my first encounter with one flighty individual I’d begun to instinctively notice flashes of olive-brown zipping between patches of tor-grass, and resting on Viper’s bugloss. If I sound like I’ve gotten in a little too deep, I wouldn’t be the first. The Lulworth Skipper’s humble appearance betrays a rich history of a species first recorded in Europe nearly 250 years ago and in the UK in the early 1800’s by naturalists, such as James Charles Dale.

The butterfly has always been a homebody, rarely straying from its core populations along the Dorset coast. Here it was prolific during the mid-20th century thanks to post-WW2 pauses in agricultural grazing and myxomatosis-induced crashes in rabbit populations. Both of which resulted in swathes of tall tor-grass, ideal for the picky female Lulworth Skipper to lay her eggs on.

Since then, the rabbits have rebounded and grazing has intensified. The consequences can be witnessed in the State of Nature report from 2015, which has reported a drop of around 75% in both overall number of Lulworth Skipper and occupied sites since the 1970s.

As habitat loss appears to be the dominant driver of declines, up-to-date understanding of where they are and how Lulworth Skipper populations are changing, as well as the role that land management is playing in these changes is vital. This is where my project comes in.

As Rachel and I travel around south Dorset, we count any skippers seen on transects that have been followed in previous surveys since 1970 and make notes on habitats (e.g. heights/presence of tor-grass). This valuable info will be used to determine the butterfly’s strongholds and sites where it is struggling, which we can then report tothe Government's environment advisor Natural England and landowners in the Farmland Butterfly and Moth Initiative. These findings can inform local land management and improve the security of the Lulworth Skipper’s future - so worth a little sunburn.

The project itself is pretty short (seven-eight weeks) but all the more intense for it, with over 80km of land to cover and few of the sites being within convenient walking distance of each other. Butterflies are highly uncooperative on grey or windy days, meaning that weekends have been mostly traded for the odd rainy Wednesday off. I can’t complain though - we have two people and a car - a previous survey in one particularly hot year was completed by one man on his bike!

We’ve now covered over 60km but still have a way to go. Despite meticulous planning the surveying is rarely straight forward, often falling foul to changeable weather, private land with no access and unpredictable peaking times for different populations. No doubt there will be many more challenges for the remaining few weeks."

Follow Fiona’s adventures on Twitter @BellFionaA