Butterfly corridors help Cornish Fritillary

A conservation project underway in Cornwall aimed at securing the future of one of Britain's rarest butterflies is proving to be a success, thanks to the creation of special 'butterfly corridors' and the revival of traditional woodland management.

The results from a survey of Heath Fritillary butterflies, carried out last year, has revealed that the butterflies look to be making a comeback in Cornwall as a result of the conservation work underway in the Tamar Valley.

The Heath Fritillary is a highly restricted species, occurring in only four areas of England: Blean Woods in Kent, The Tamar and Lydford Valleys, sheltered combes in Exmoor, and south Essex.

In the last 25 years this attractive butterfly has declined due to changes in woodland and moorland management.

The Heath Fritillary prefers sunny woodland glades where it flies close to the ground with characteristic flits and glides. The butterfly has historically been linked with the traditional practice of coppicing of woodland, giving it the local name of the 'Woodman's Follower'.

Cornwall was once a stronghold for the Heath Fritillary but the population has plummeted here too. Although a small population of Heath Fritillaries has clung on in the Tamar Valley, the future was looking so bleak for the species that local conservation organisations, land owners and volunteers joined forces in a bid to save the area's butterflies.

The project - which is a partnership between Butterfly Conservation, The Duchy of Cornwall, Natural England and the Tamar Valley AONB - is currently focusing its work on an area north of Kit Hill on the Cornish side of the river.

Here scrub control, coppicing and conifer removal is being carried out at three main sites. The aim is to expand the areas currently occupied by the heath fritillary and link these sites to new areas of suitable habitat by creating special 'butterfly corridors' through the Valley.

At Greenscombe Wood, which is owned by The Duchy of Cornwall, a coppicing programme is underway to create more havens for the butterflies. Rotational annual coppicing is carried out to provide continuous areas of suitable butterfly habitat.

Similar work is planned at Deer Park Wood, where coppice compartments are being managed by the Duchy of Cornwall. Funding to carry out the management work is coming from the Duchy and from Natural England's Environmental Stewardship Higher Level Scheme (HLS).

The creation of a new 'Fritillary Flyway' has been created on Deer Park Farm under a separate HLS agreement. The work helps to connect both Greenscombe and Deer Park Wood, increasing the likelihood of the butterflies extending their current territory still further.

The results of a survey of the Tamar's Heath Fritillary population carried out by Butterfly Conservation volunteers last year has shown an encouraging link between the management work being carried out and an increase in the butterfly's numbers.

In 2011, Heath Fritillary butterflies were located in twice as much of Greenscombe Wood as in the previous year (2.9 ha in 2011 compared to 1.2 ha in 2010). The survey also found that the amount of suitable habitat available to the butterflies had increased as a result of the woodland management carried out as part of the HLS scheme.

Geraint Richards head forester with The Duchy of Cornwall Woodlands said: "Greenscombe Wood is a very special place, rich in history and biodiversity.

"It is very satisfying to see a revival in the Heath Fritillary population after many years of collaborative effort; I would like to thank all those who have worked with the Duchy to make this possible."

Nigel Bourn, Director of Conservation at Butterfly Conservation, said: "The Heath Fritillary is a top conservation priority having suffered severe declines since the 1980s.

"This fantastic partnership project demonstrates that with a lot of support and hard work, species can be brought back from the edge of extinction."

Hugh Tyler of Natural England's Cornwall Team, added: "This project is a great example of local organisations and individuals working together to make things happen on the ground. It's fantastic to see that the management work, which is partly funded by an Environmental Stewardship scheme, seems to be making a tangible difference by providing a lifeline for these rare and beautiful butterflies.

"Particular thanks must go to Butterfly Conservation and its volunteers for undertaking the detailed annual monitoring work and to Geraint Richards at the Duchy of Cornwall.

"Geraint has been enthusiastic and dedicated to the project from the start and without his help getting the right management on the ground for the Heath Fritillaries would have proved impossible."

As well as helping the Heath Fritillary, the work in the Tamar Valley has increased the number of butterfly species recorded in the area from 13 species in 2004 - before major restoration work was undertaken; 14 in 2008 - before HLS works; to an impressive 20 different species recorded in 2010 following the HLS funded work. Some of the other butterflies that have benefited from the project are Small Copper, Small Tortoiseshell and Common Blue.