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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3 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

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