Butterfly Conservation has strongly welcomed the sentencing of a collector found guilty of illegally catching and killing the UK’s rarest butterfly.

In a legal first, Phillip Cullen, 57, from Cadbury Heath, Bristol, was given a six-month suspended sentence after being found guilty of deliberately capturing and killing Large Blue butterflies on two occasions at nature reserves in Somerset and Gloucestershire in 2015.

During sentencing at Bristol Magistrates Court, Cullen, who has previous convictions for violence and public order offences, was also made subject of a Criminal Behaviour Order, meaning he cannot visit the sites where he killed the butterflies.

Butterfly Conservation Chief Executive Julie Williams said: “By imposing a suspended sentence, Magistrates have sent a strong message that wildlife crime is totally unacceptable in any form.

“More than three-quarters of the UK’s butterflies have declined in the last 40 years so for Mr Cullen to illegally catch and kill one of our most threatened species, that is slowly recovering following extinction, is unforgivable.

“We welcome this prosecution and commend the hard work of the National Wildlife Crime Unit in bringing together evidence for this important test case.   

“Collecting this and other protected butterflies is not just a crime, it undermines the hard work of hundreds of volunteers, conservationists, scientists and funders who have worked tirelessly in recent decades to restore this beautiful butterfly to the British countryside.”

The globally endangered Large Blue is fully protected under UK law and alongside the High Brown Fritillary is listed as the UK’s most threatened butterfly.

The Large Blue became extinct in 1979, but it has been reintroduced as part of a long-term and highly successful conservation project.

The court heard that Cullen was spotted climbing over a locked fence to gain access to Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust's Daneway Banks nature reserve, near Sapperton, Gloucestershire on 18 June.

He was spotted attempting to catch a Large Blue in a net by Butterfly Conservation member Neil Hulme, who was visiting the site. 

When confronted, Cullen claimed he was attempting to catch parasitic wasps rather than the Large Blue.

The next day Cullen was seen acting suspiciously at Large Blue hotspot, the National Trust’s Collard Hill reserve near Street, Somerset and it was here that Kevin Withey, prosecuting, told the court that Cullen again captured and killed a Large Blue. 

When officers from the National Wildlife Crime Unit subsequently searched Cullen’s house in February 2016 they found an illegal collection of some of the UK’s rarest butterflies, including dead specimens of the Large Blue, Heath Fritillary, High Brown Fritillary and Swallowtail.

Two Large Blue specimens were found during the search, one labelled DB and the other CH. Mr Withey said the letters stood for Collard Hill and Daneway banks, the locations where the butterflies were caught. Cullen had claimed the letters stood for the colour descriptions ‘dark blue’ and ‘cobalt hue’.

Cullen was found guilty of three counts under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations (CHSR) 2010 for the illegal capture, killing and possession of the Large Blue at Daneway Banks and three counts of the same offences at Collard Hill.

He had previously pleaded guilty to a count, contrary to the CHSR, of possessing dead specimens of the Large Blue, Large Copper, Southern Festoon and Clouded Apollo.

Cullen had also pleaded guilty, contrary to the Wildlife and Countryside Act, of possessing dead specimens of Black Veined MothFiery Clearwing moth, Marsh Fritillary, Heath Fritillary, High Brown Fritillary and Swallowtail.

Sentencing, Chair of the Magistrates Mrs Susan Helfer said: “The offences are so serious that we consider they cross the custody threshhold. 

"The deliberate pre-planned nature of the offences were committed in the knowledge that you were capturing and killing an endangered species". 

The prosecution asked for the Criminal Behaviour Order to be imposed after Cullen, speaking outside court after the trial in March, shouted to witnesses: "See you all on the sites next summer".

As part of the order he was banned from visiting Collard Hill, Daneway Banks and another Large Blue reserve, Green Down, in Somerset for five years. 

The court heard that witnesses found Cullen's remarks "intimidating and threatening". He was ordered to pay costs of £300. 

Of the 59 species of butterfly found in the UK 25 are afforded some kind protection and six including the Large Blue are fully protected, meaning they cannot be collected, killed or sold.

During the trial it emerged that Cullen was a Butterfly Conservation member. Following conviction, Mr Cullen’s membership was immediately revoked.

Julie Williams said: “Butterfly Conservation is utterly opposed to the illegal killing and capturing of butterflies and moths. As a result of Mr Cullen’s actions, the Butterfly Conservation Board of Trustees moved swiftly to revoke his membership of the charity.”