Saving England's most threatened species from extinction

The reintroduction of the Chequered Skipper

My name is Jamie Wildman and I am a PhD Environmental Science student at the University of Northampton which is working in partnership with Butterfly Conservation to research the ecology of the Chequered Skipper butterfly and its reintroduction to Rockingham Forest as part of the Back from the Brink Roots of Rockingham project.

 

Belgium: Collecting Chequered Skippers

 

On Monday 21st May, I was fortunate enough to travel to the Fagne-Famenne region of Belgium with Butterfly Conservation to collect Chequered Skippers for translocation to Rockingham Forest. It only took two days and nights for us to find ourselves in a stand-off with a family of boar, assaulted by marauding thunderstorms, dazzled by all manner of creepy-crawlies, deafened by the croaks of lime-green frogs, overawed by beautiful Belgian woodland, and (almost) claimed by a tractor on a blind bend. All in pursuit of an itty-bitty, fuzzy-wuzzy, gold and brown butterfly that vanished from England in 1976.

Although I was on research duty for a majority of our whistle-stop Belgium trip, snapping hundreds of photographs of vegetation, Chequered Skippers in their native habitat, and the many steps of the collection and translocation process—in addition to hastily scrawling an abundance of notes—I can pinpoint the precise moment I became sentimentally attached to the project, as opposed to purely academically:

I briefly had a butterfly net in my possession on Tuesday afternoon—the day after we had arrived in Belgium. After trawling the length of a ride unsuccessfully and thinking my opportunity had passed, I found myself back on the rocky path we had driven in on. Whilst our team leader and Belgian expert, Philippe Goffart of the Département de L’Etude du Milieu Naturel et Agricole in Wallonia, was in conversation with two day-trippers who had been reclining nearby, I spotted a familiar-looking silhouette spiral around him before pausing on a leaf to bask! I crept up to the butterfly, whipped my net at it determinedly, and gently lifted it to find… a Chequered Skipper fluttering away merrily amongst the silvery mesh. I had caught one! Expectantly, I raised it to Philippe:

‘It is a female,’ he said, with a wry smile.

I will never forget that moment.

 

Since the Reintroduction Day…

 

After the butterflies were released in Rockingham Forest, I camped nearby for two weeks to carry out vegetation surveys (including assessments of grass height, nectar availability, ride width, and soil moisture) in the butterflies’ new home, which I will relate to dispersal and abundance data (i.e. where and how often Chequered Skippers are seen) in order to help identity their ideal habitat.

I have also been familiarising myself with the flora and fauna of Rockingham Forest, and studying the butterflies’ behaviour. Soon, I will begin to look for telltale munching patterns on leaves; signs that Chequered Skipper caterpillars (known as ‘larvae’) have hatched from eggs laid by the females. I will study the larvae throughout their lifecycle as they go through different stages of growth (‘instars’) until they emerge as adult butterflies (‘imago’) in mid-May 2019.

Chequered Skippers seem to have a habit of popping up when you least expect them. I spent many hours fruitlessly wandering around Rockingham Forest for a glimpse of the butterfly, and yet, two Fridays ago, just as I had begun to wade into the long grasses of a ride with Susannah O’Riordan (Project Officer, Roots of Rockingham)—solely with the intention of identifying a grass species with her assistance—a female Chequered Skipper sprang up suddenly to land on my right hip. ‘You have found me!’ it had said, and duly rewarded us by fluttering down to nectar on a buttercup in plain view.

Naturally, Chequered Skippers tend to disappear as quickly as they appear—almost supernaturally, in fact—which makes tracking them for long periods quite challenging. There are exceptions to this trait, however: my PhD supervisors (Professor Jeff Ollerton and Dr Duncan McCollin, University of Northampton, and Professor Tom Brereton, Associate Director of Monitoring and Research, Butterfly Conservation) and I were once fortunate enough to observe a female resting on a single leaf blade for over three-quarters of an hour.

Such behaviour has its caveats, however: given their diminutive size (female Chequered Skippers have an average wingspan of 31mm; the males 29mm) and habit of fluttering low amongst grasses looking for suitable blades to lay eggs on, if one is not practically falling over the female of the species, one may never see her at all! The male tends to be more noticeable, as once he has established a territory, he can often be seen darting up from his perch to intercept passing pollinators or to drive off rival males before returning to his lookout post—placed in such a way to spot potential mates.

 

Chequered Skippers: a Future in England?

 

As of the time of writing, some Chequered Skipper butterflies are still on the wing in Rockingham Forest.

These brave trailblazers have lived short, silent, beautiful lives. From quaint, unassuming beginnings weightlessly fluttering down Belgian rides, they have survived the long journey to our shores in refrigerated containers, and been broadcast to millions on national television, gradually awakening from their induced slumbers on a frigid Thursday morning.

Soon, all 42 Chequered Skippers will expire at last, sight unseen, in the woods of Rockingham Forest. Each butterfly will fall without never knowing its significance. No memorial will ever mark its final resting place, nor ceremony grace its demise. And yet, given how entangled I have somehow found myself in the lives of these fragile creatures, I can almost hear them dropping to the forest floor, one by one.

Those who have been instrumental in the realisation of this great project, and I, who have gazed on countless photographs of the translocated Chequered Skippers in Rockingham Forest, will not soon forget the number 42, nor the gradual ageing of these hardy butterflies, growing evermore faded and ragged in the early summer sun.

Next year—I hope—their offspring will rise up from the grasses, and the Chequered Skipper will truly be of England once more.

 

Jamie Wildman

PhD Environmental Science student, University of Northampton.

 

 

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13 thoughts on “The reintroduction of the Chequered Skipper

  1. Chequered Skipper larvae depend on Wood Ants (Formica rufa in England, F. aquilonia in Scotland) to control their main natural predator Earwigs. The larvae have a bullet-like head which is immediately withdrawn to the end of its grass feeding tube when disturbed. Earwigs easily bypass the head and predate the larvae within, Wood Ants cannot. I believe the Rockingham Forest site has no Wood Ants and the introduction of the Chequered Skipper here is destined to failure just as it did at Chambers’ Forest, Lincolnshire over a decade ago.

    1. Thanks for this interesting observation – we’re working with the best science available to us. However, if you know of any published source that showcases your point that we could follow up – could you please provide it? I’ll then pass it on to our team, thanks.
      BftB

  2. At least a hundred published sources showcase ants as keystone species in invertebrate ecology with several specialising on Wood Ants in particular. The most specific British example is by television personality, Jimmy Doherty, concerns Heath Fritillary and was published for his PhD. For a more popularist approach my article on Mazarine Blue might just suffice (White, 2016). In addition to the dynamic role they play in invertebrate ecology, Wood Ants are also known to plant or cultivate around 25% of our native forest flora. Most myrmcecologists consider this figure will rise significantly in coming years. However, the best current research is being carried out in Germany, were they doubtless lead the field by 20 years. It should be noteworthy that ant ecology is 105 million years older than butterfly ecology and it is butterfly ecology and morphology that has evolved to fit the earlier template of ant ecology and not the other way around, though avian ecology tends to have greater impact on adult morphology and ants on the earlier stages. Trying to study butterfly ecology to any great depth while disenfranchising ants is comparable to rowing the Atlantic in a deckchair. The earliest theories about butterfly dependency on ants were originally mooted by Professor Ford in 1945 (Ford, 1945, chapter 6).

    It is perhaps non-coincidental that Bedford Purlieus NNR in Rockingham Forest has the highest concentration of Wood Ant, F. rufa, in England: 320 active nests known to me between 2016 and 2018: and the largest extant flora for any site in Britain; over 500 species of vascular plant. Its invertebrate/ butterfly list is also rather impressive.

    If Wood Ants are present at the donor colony in Belgium then hapless Chequered Skippers have been removed from a site given protection by a keystone species to a site lacking such security and the actions of your team are at best a waste of time, money and resources. Will your team be publishing their findings or keeping them a strict secret as happened with the Chambers’ Forest introduction fiasco?

    1. Thanks for your detailed comments, which we’ll certainly be discussing with our research team. We will be reporting on the success or failure of the Chequered Skipper reintroduction in due course. It’s crucial that reintroduction attempts are documented and the results shared to improve our collective knowledge of what works in conservation.
      BftB

  3. This is an interesting, albeit one-sided debate. I have some questions. Is the suggested dependence of Chequered Skippers on wood ants documented in the literature and, if it is, would Martin White please cite the sources? Have a PhD student and his supervisors really done this work without investigating symbiotic relationships with other insects? I find that hard to believe as regards Tom Brereton. Have the reintroduced butterflies been liberated in the same area from which they became extinct? Was the post ’76 drought the major reason for the extinction or were there other causes and, if so, have they been nullified as part of the reintroduction? Such an important project deserves better documentation.

    1. Dear Prof Tomlinson,

      I’ve studied numerous accounts of the symbiotic relationship between Blue butterflies and ants, e.g. parasitism of Myrmica spp. by Large Blue (Maculinae arion) during my literature review. Accusations of ant ‘disenfranchisement’ are baseless. The claim that Chequered Skippers are ‘dependent’ on ants is uncorroborated as of the time of writing. I will, of course, interrogate how CS interact with other invertebrates as part of my research.

      In regard to your questions: the drought was a very minor factor. Mass-abandonment of coppicing and a switch to conifer planting (both leading to shading over) earlier in the 20th c., land management changes and habitat fragmentation were more likely to blame. The species is said to have merely ‘lingered on’ for as long as it did. Rockingham Forest restoration work is taking place precisely to improve habitat quality/suitability for CS and other target spp.

    1. Hi there,

      Check our social media: @naturebftb with updates – all gone live today!
      Also, keep an eye out for our next blog – all about the success of the Chequered Skipper.

      BftB

  4. Sitting in my garden is ipswich 27th Junes, there they were…chequered skipper bopping alont yhe verbena and the lavender all afternoon…took pictues…at first I thought I have never seen one this colour..and I was right..after a little research it has a large wing span and looked like it was laying egs…whill keep a diary on its actions…awesome

  5. Just seen a colony of several hundred of what I believe to be chequered skippers on bramble and clover on the Cleveland way between Filey and Blue Dolphin Holiday park on Friday 28th June 2019.

    1. Hi Paul
      It seems unlikely that they would be Chequered Skippers, could they possibly be one of the other more common Skipper species, such as Large or Small Skipper, both of which are found in Yorkshire. If you manage to get a picture though, we would be delighted to take a look at it.
      Many thanks!

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