Small Blue (upperwing) by Andrew Cooper

Conservationists have gone to extraordinary lengths to move a colony of rare butterflies from their home in an abandoned quarry after the site was scheduled for redevelopment.

More than 500 caterpillars of the Small Blue butterfly were transferred by hand from the site to more suitable locations in the Torbay area.

Torbay is a Devon stronghold for the Small Blue – one of the rarest butterflies in the county.

Butterfly Conservation Devon Branch volunteer Amanda Hunter spent hours painstakingly trying to spot the tiny Small Blue caterpillars that feed on Kidney Vetch plants growing at the quarry.

Once seen, the caterpillars were collected, placed in large plastic trays and transferred to their new homes amongst existing colonies at Berry Head National Nature Reserve (NNR) and another site in the Torbay area.

Amanda made more than 15 trips over a four-week period to the site last summer, collecting more than 550 Small Blue caterpillars in the process. It is hoped that the butterflies will successfully re-emerge this spring.

The butterfly is the UK’s smallest and is often found on cliffs and quarries. The numbers in these colonies fluctuate due to weather and availability of the caterpillar food plant, Kidney Vetch. 

The decision to develop the site was announced in late 2013 with work due in 2014. Amanda met with Torbay Coast & Countryside Trust (TCCT), Torbay Council, Torbay Development Agency and the site lease holders Hi-Line Contractors SW Ltd, during the winter to find a way to save the butterflies.

All parties agreed to delay the development until summer 2014 enabling the caterpillars to finish their hibernation, pupate and emerge as butterflies in the spring.  The best way to remove the butterflies from the site was to allow the next generation of caterpillars to hatch in June and then collect them in the Kidney Vetch plants.

With the agreement of government wildlife agency Natural England, the caterpillars were distributed between the main Torbay colony and with the smaller colony at Berry Head. 

TCCT’s Countryside Officer Noel Hughes said: “We won’t know whether this rescue translocation has been successful or not until summer 2015 but we are all doing everything possible to help this rare species and I hope that in summers to come members of the public may be able to catch a glimpse of this elusive butterfly in the Berry Head National Nature Reserve”. 

Amanda added: “TCCT has been really supportive in the past with conservation work on all the relevant Small Blue Torbay sites and although it is great that we have been able to translocate some of the rescued larvae to Berry Head we still need TCCT support to look after these butterflies on all relevant sites in Torbay if they are to flourish in the future.” 

Amanda has been assisting TCCT trainee ranger, Emily Tabernor, on a research project about the growth of Kidney Vetch and how to increase the colonies of this important plant at Berry Head and TCCT will continue this research.  Butterfly Conservation has provided useful advice from similar projects undertaken by their Warwickshire branch.

Tree surgeons Hi-Line Contractors SW Ltd finally moved onto the development site once it was vacated by the butterflies. Julie Jamieson, Head of Ecology & Conservation at Hi-Line, said ‘We were really glad to support local conservation and were thrilled when Amanda told us that so many larvae had been rescued”. 

Hi-Line continue to be involved with this project and have generously given time and skilled labour to clear vegetation elsewhere in the quarry to provide a possible new area of suitable habitat.

In 2014 Amanda won a Butterfly Conservation Outstanding Volunteer Award or her efforts to save this colony of Small Blues.  Amanda HunterAmanda collected her award at the Devon Branch AGM in November 2014.

She said: “As I live in Torbay I’m really keen to ensure this special butterfly can continue to thrive here too.  Our wonderful wildlife in Torbay is appreciated by locals and tourists alike. 

“Wildlife habitat is all too easily lost to industry or housing needs and sometimes helping local species to survive does involve difficult decisions.  I’m so pleased that everyone involved in this project was able to work together and I believe we have made a real difference here for the Small Blue and for conservation in Torbay.”