Rare butterfly colonises Haweswater

Marsh Fritillary in Swindale Meadows, taken by David Morris

What has been discovered?

We’re super excited that a new colony of one of Europe’s rarest butterflies, the Marsh Fritillary has been discovered this month at Haweswater.

The initial discovery was made by our Warden Spike earlier this month, when he discovered four Marsh Fritillary butterflies in our wildflower hay meadows in Swindale Valley. A further visit by our Site Manager Lee uncovered six. 

How rare are Marsh Fritillaries?

Once widespread throughout the UK, the Marsh Fritillary declined severely over the twentieth century as a result of changes to farming and the drainage of damp grasslands. It is now sadly, largely confined to the western side of Britain and Ireland. The number of colonies in Cumbria dropped from over 200 to just three in the year 2000 and by 2004 they faced extinction in the county.

In 2007, the Cumbria Marsh Fritillary Project – a successful re-introduction programme in Cumbria led by Butterfly Conservation, Natural England and DEFRA released 42,000 Marsh Fritillary larvae over four sites in the county. This was part of a scheme aimed at bringing back these beautiful butterflies to the area, in order for them to spread out naturally. It has been successful, with Marsh Fritillaries now found many sites across Cumbria, including this new found population at Haweswater. They colonised Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s Eycott Hill Nature Reserve near Greystoke in 2020.

Marsh Fritillary in Swindale meadows, taken by Lee Schofield

What do they need?

A key factor in the return of Marsh Fritillaries is providing the habitat they need. We use native Cumbrian Fell Ponies here, to help graze more dominant, course vegetation such as rushes, which allows through delicate, less-competitive plants like Devil’s Bit Scabious, which is the food plant of Marsh Fritillaries. This plant is now abundant in Swindale Valley, thanks to the Fell Ponies grazing, so has created the ideal conditions for the Marsh Fritillaries to lay their eggs.

What does this mean to those involved?

Our Site Manager Lee said: “This is what I love about nature, it’s full of surprises. We know there were sightings of Marsh Fritillaries just over the fell from Swindale, in Wet Sleddle last year, so it’s not very far as the butterfly flies. We had actually planned to re-introduce this species to Haweswater through the Cumbria Connect partnership programme, part of which involves bringing lost species back to this area of the Eastern Lake District. But now following our management to create the conditions they need, nature has done it all by itself. It’s hugely satisfying seeing wildlife respond to the improved quality of habitats at Haweswater.”

Part of the overall plan of the Cumbria Marsh Fritillary Project was to establish core colonies so the butterflies could increase in numbers in those core areas and naturally expand onto suitable habitats they find for themselves.

Dr Dave Wainwright, Head of Conservation at Butterfly Conservation said: “The appearance of the Marsh Fritillary at Swindale is reward for all the hard work and planning by our colleagues at RSPB. It adds another piece to the jigsaw of occupied habitat in North Cumbria and it is this landscape-scale approach, enabled by multiple partners, that has driven the success of the species’ reintroduction. All partners involved, both in the initial reintroduction and the essential land management that underpins it, can feel tremendously proud that this beautiful and iconic species continues to expand within the landscapes of Cumbria.”

At Haweswater, the RSPB works in partnership with the landowner, water company United Utilities. Our work here is about landscape restoration to benefit wildlife, water and people.

John Gorst, Catchment Partnership Officer from United Utilities said: “The return of the Marsh Fritillary to Swindale is great news for this once extinct species in Cumbria. It is yet another sign that the management changes and sustainable approach to farming being delivered by the RSPB in partnership with United Utilities, are helping to address some of the biodiversity losses and reverse the trends being seen in the wider landscape. Swindale is already a special place but the success of species like the Marsh Fritillary are a very visible result of the successful management approach.”

Follow the story

Discover more about the work of the RSPB and United Utilities at Haweswater here: wildhaweswater.co.uk

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Marsh Fritillary in Swindale meadows, taken by Lee Schofield

– Blog by Annabel Rushton, RSPB Visitor Experience Manager

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