The big three needed for the magnificent seven.

Farmland is an important habitat for butterflies and a new projectThe Farmland Butterfly Initiative(FBI), aims to support farmers in managing their land to help seven of the country’s most endangered butterflies.

The Duke of Burgundy has been reduced to around 100 sites, the High Brown Fritillary has declined to about 50 sites and the Heath Fritillary is only in existence on 40 remaining sites. The other species include the Marsh Fritillary, Lulworth Skipper, Pearl-bordered Fritillary and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary.

Owners of 150 key farmland sites are being asked to provide the ‘Big Three’ features essential for these butterflies to survive. Using the government’s Higher Level Stewardship scheme (HLS) farmers will receive specific practical guidance from local Natural England Advisers and Butterfly Conservation staff to ensure that farming practices are tailored to the needs of butterfly species.

‘Big Three’ features for butterfly survival are:

1.     Structural variety in the grass

This is needed as each butterfly species requires a variety of heights from long grasses to bare ground for egg laying and caterpillar survival. Correct conditions can be created by livestock grazing at the right stocking levels.

2.     Summer nectar sources

Food for the adult butterflies can help them to survive for longer and produce the maximum number of eggs. Summer nectar is also good for a wide range of insects including pollinators of crops such as bees. Plentiful flowering can be created by reduced levels of grazing during the summer and careful control of sheep grazing as they can strip wildflowers even at low stocking densities.

3.     Patches of scrub

Scrub provides shelter and breeding areas where the host plant occurs for some butterfly species, however it does need to be managed to stop it from becoming too dense. The aim is to provide scattered patches of scrub across the grassland.

By managing habitats to deliver the ‘Big Three’ features for butterflies, other invertebrates such as moths, bees and spiders will benefit too.

Livestock farmer Paul Barnes is determined that his farming practices will help encourage the rare Marsh Fritillary which can be found in areas of damp grassland on his farm in Braithwaite, Cumbria following a re-introduction programme.

Mr Barnes said: “It’s a real privilege for me to have Marsh Fritillary on my land – it’s such a rare species now that I feel a real responsibility to make sure the butterfly can thrive on the farm in the future.

“The advice from Natural England and Butterfly Conservation has been absolutely vital in helping me farm in such a way that help protect this important and beautiful species.”

James Phillips, Manager of Natural England’s Species Recovery Programme said: “This exciting initiative between Butterfly Conservation and Natural England aims to help some of our rarest butterflies across England.

“It’s all about providing the structure of habitat needed for the butterflies to thrive, if we can do this on the sites where they are still to be found then this will make a huge difference to these threatened species. Environmental Stewardship is a great tool to help achieve this. The land management skills of the farming community is crucial to its success. By working with farmers across the country, the Farmland Butterfly Initiative will ensure that Environmental Stewardship delivers the most effective habitat management for butterflies as possible.”

Butterflies play an important role in the natural ecosystem as pollinators and as food in the food chain and they are often seen as indicators of a healthy environment. Environmentally friendly farming schemes such as HLS have been in existence for a number of years and support farmers in maintaining or instigating more sympathetic and less-intensive farming methods to provide habitat for wildlife. Some butterfly species are starting to benefit, including some of our most rapidly declining species, but others are not faring so well, the initiative looks to give these species an extra helping hand with HLS.

Dr Caroline Bulman, Butterfly Conservation’s Senior Species Ecologistsaid: “This is an exciting opportunity to work with farmers to reverse the decline of some of our most highly threatened butterfly species. In future years it is hoped that this initiative can be widened to incorporate other butterflies and farmland moths present in the wider countryside”.