The Chequered Skipper Butterfly became extinct in England in 1975, when the last of its kind was seen in the woods of the East Midlands. The species is still found in western Scotland, but this year sees the start of a project to reintroduce the butterfly to England as part of the Roots of Rockingham project. This project, focusing on the woods of the extensive Rockingham Forest in Northamptonshire, Rutland and Cambridgeshire, is all about the life between the trees – recreating a network of open woodland rides, glades and edges that support a wealth of wildlife, from Adders to Fly Orchids, from Grizzled Skipper butterflies to Willow Tits.
Reintroducing the Chequered Skipper is just one part of proving that an interconnected network of woodland habitats has been restored. Butterflies are brilliant indicators of a healthy environment, representing the hugely diverse group of insects and are relatively easy to identify and can tell us about important things about the state of the countryside. When one conspicuous butterfly disappears, it shows that something is going wrong with the way we manage the environment. A thriving population of Chequered Skippers will help to demonstrate that the woodland landscape at Rockingham is working for wildlife, with a network of open, sunny habitats that can support a wide range of other species as well.
With the first record of the species in England dating back to 1798, this butterfly has had a long and – ahem – chequered, history, but it was certainly widespread across the woods of central England as far north as Lincolnshire in the 19th century. By the 1950s it was restricted to a few woodlands in the centre of this area, including Rockingham Forest, with most of its remaining sites lost during the ‘60s and the last confirmed sighting in 1975. Its decline was probably due to a combination of factors affecting both limestone grasslands and the open, damp woodlands that it prefers: a steady decline in coppicing, the traditional woodland management which provided a regular rotation of open space; enormous changes in woodland structure with a move to high canopy forests and conifer plantations; myxomatosis, the disease which devastated rabbits in the latter part of the 20th century causing its grassland habitats to scrub over as well.
Between all these factors, it was left with no suitable habitat, given its requirement for warm, damp but sunny grasslands. Sadly this stunning little butterfly can no longer be seen zipping across the grass, nectaring at the flowers Bugle and Ragged Robin, and its loss is a reflection of how much our woodland landscape has changed over the last century.
So there is no point trying to reintroduce a species until the problems that led to its disappearance have been resolved.
In Rockingham Forest, landowners have been improving woodland habitats for several years, gradually removing non-native conifers, re-opening rides that had become narrow and shaded, and reinstating management plans that provide regular creation of open space. Re-introductions are not a quick fix, but just the start of a longer process of sustainably managing woodlands with wildlife in mind, a partnership that involves landowners, the forestry sector, conservation professionals and local volunteers.
Re-establishing a population of Chequered Skippers is a big undertaking, which has only been possible with the backing of a major project like Back from the Brink. But if we can get it right, not only will people be able to enjoy seeing this delightful symbol of spring zigzagging across the forest floor, we’ll have shown that the forest itself has been restored to something closer to its former glory.
Head of Conservation England, Butterfly Conservation.
Would you like to help this incredible species? There are numerous ways in which you can:
- Why not volunteer for Back from the Brink? Check out our events page for opportunities near you.
- Help us to spread the word of this species, and the others we will be helping over the next 3 years, by sharing our message across our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube pages. Follow us: @naturebftb.
- Finally - help support the work we do across England by donating. Our impact will be greater with your help.