White-letter Hairstreak butterfly by Mike McKenzie

Hundreds of Sussex schoolchildren and college students have joined forces to save a rare butterfly from local extinction, wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation (BC) can reveal.

Volunteers aged from six to 18 are creating new habitat for the rapidly declining White-letter Hairstreak at Lancing College near Shoreham airport.

The butterfly, identified by a distinctive ‘W’ marking on the underside of its wing, has experienced a 93% decline in numbers across the UK since the 1970’s and is at risk because its caterpillar will only feed on elm.

Millions of elm have been lost across Sussex and other parts of the country over the last 40 years due to Dutch elm disease, an infection first brought over to the UK on imported logs from Canada.

At least 550 disease-resistant elm trees will be planted to help the White-letter Hairstreak as part of the Elms for Adur Hairstreaks project by BC’s Sussex Branch, with support from the South Downs Volunteer Ranger Service and local young people.

White-letter Hairstreak butterfly
White-letter Hairstreak butterfly by Bob Eade

Children from Sussex primary schools, special educational needs schools, cubs and scouts groups, college students and teenagers working towards their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award will all be involved in tasks from planting to learning more about the butterfly.

Project Officer and BC Sussex volunteer, Jamie Burston, said: “Lancing College is the perfect place to plant elm because the White-Letter Hairstreak has been found breeding nearby and these trees will connect the existing colonies, creating a habitat corridor that will encourage the butterfly to expand its range across the Adur landscape.

“The butterfly’s distribution has dropped by 29% in the south east region since the mid-1990s, but at this site, the new trees will be protected from any threats or development and students can get involved in caring for them and surveying the butterfly for years to come.”

Elm trees ready to be planted
Elm trees ready to be planted

Project volunteers have begun planting three types of disease-resistant elm, including LUTЀCE, Ademuz and Dehesa de Amaniel. The trees will add to the existing woodland and form hedgerows over the 500-acre Lancing College Estate.

Farm Manager at Lancing College, Jon Hutcheon, said: “We already run forest schools in the College grounds to teach our students about local wildlife and conservation, but this project is allowing us to connect with more young people, across a range of ages and from all over Sussex.

“It’s so important to teach the younger generation about the importance of wildlife and the pivotal role they will all play in protecting species like the White-letter Hairstreak in the future.”

The butterfly will use the new elm trees when they reach maturity and produce their first flowers, which takes around five to seven years.

Volunteers from BC Sussex will then be able to carry out butterfly surveys and help younger volunteers learn how to spot the White-letter Hairstreak and its eggs.

BC Volunteers

Funding for the project has come from the Sustainable Communities Fund of South Downs National Park Authority, the Stanley Smith (UK) Horticultural Trust, Tesco’s Bags of Help scheme and BC’s Sussex Branch.

Jamie added: “We’re confident that we can secure a future for the White-letter Hairstreak in Sussex, as well as contribute to ongoing efforts to minimise the impact of Dutch elm disease.

“The support of the Lancing College Estate and the South Downs National Park Authority has been absolutely crucial in getting this project off the ground and by working together, we are hoping to create a lasting legacy for the whole of Sussex.”

About the project funders:

The South Downs National Park Trust is the official charity of the South Downs National Park. We are an independent organisation, governed by an autonomous and experienced board of trustees who oversee our work. Although we are small we have big ambitions to see more land managed for wildlife; more rare habitats protected; more local communities thriving and more people able to access and enjoy their National Park. This requires more investment and we want to secure and direct the substantial goodwill that exists for the South Downs to places where it can make a real difference. Any partnership, voluntary group or organisation undertaking a non-profit making project that socially, economically, environmentally or culturally benefits South Downs National Park communities can apply for SDNPA Sustainable Communities Funding. SCF grants are available for up to 60 per cent of the project cost from £250 to a maximum of £10,000.

Tom Parry (SDNPA), Jon Hutchinson (Lancing College) and Jamie Burston (BC Sussex)

Lancing College is an independent boarding and day school located east of Worthing, near the village of Lancing in West Sussex.

Butterfly Conservation's Sussex Branch is run entirely by volunteers. To find out more about their conservation work, please visit: www.sussex-butterflies.org.uk/about.

The Stanley Smith (UK) Horticultural Trust was established on 7 October 1970 in memory of Stanley Smith (1907-1968), an Australian businessman who had a keen interest in gardening, cultivating orchids and supporting horticultural projects across the world. The objectives of the Trust are to promote horticulture, to promote the conservation of the physical and natural environment by promoting biological diversity, to promote the creation, development, preservation and maintenance of gardens (preference will normally, but not exclusively, be given to gardens accessible to the public) and the advancement of horticultural education. For more information on the Trust, please email David Rae at @email.

The Tesco ‘Bags of Help’ funding scheme is supported by money from the five pence charge levied on single-use carrier bags. So far Bags of Help has awarded over £27 million to more than 3,500 local community projects. Funding is available to community groups and charities looking to fund local projects that bring benefits to communities. Anyone can nominate a project and organisations can apply online.