Searching out and finding Butterflies in Cornwall may not be your first thought for a trip to Cornwall but it can be a rewarding thing to do. The heath fritillary is a rare butterfly that is restricted to a few key habitats: primarily, coppiced woodland or sheltered heathland where it can be seen flying close to the ground in a distinctive flutter-and-glide pattern. It is confined to a small number of sites in Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Kent, and has also been reintroduced into sites in Essex. Although very local in its distribution, this butterfly can be seen in large numbers in good years. It forms discrete colonies and rarely strays from its main breeding grounds.
The Butterfly itself.
The Heath Fritillary butterfly is one of the Butterflies in Cornwall is a most threatened butterfly, being restricted to only four areas within the UK, namely the woodlands of Kent and Essex, Exmoor National Park in Somerset, and the Tamar Valley, where the population straddles the border between Devon and Cornwall. The total area occupied by this butterfly across all sites is less than 1 square kilometre, so it is a real priority for the conservation work by the Butterfly Conservation Trust.
The Heath Fritillary requires open moorland or woodland glades where its foodplants, Common Cow-wheat or Ribwort Plantain, are abundant. These conditions are usually created through coppicing, scrub management and ride-widening. Its preference for open, sunny glades in newly cleared woodland has led to its nickname ‘the Woodman’s follower’, as it traditionally followed the woodsman around a wood as new coppice clearings were created.
What went wrong?
The Heath Fritillary was doing well in the Tamar Valley in the 1980s but by early 2000, following considerable growth by the conifers surrounding the site, much of the open habitat had become shaded with a reduction in the foodplant, which eventually led to the local extinction of the butterfly. Concerted conservation work was carried out to recreate suitable conditions and then the butterfly was re-introduced, in 2006.
Following the re-introduction, the population has remained stable thanks to the rotational programme of coppice management, ride management and bracken control, but additional areas need to be restored and connectivity improved between potential breeding areas in order to strengthen the population and help it to sustain in the long-term across the landscape.
Where to find them?
Situated on a meander of the River Tamar, the steep east-facing slopes are underlain by Upper Devonian slates. The area has a complex history of land-use going back to late mediæval times and is now under the stewardship of the Duchy of Cornwall. This includes a deer park, extensive mining for copper, tin, tungsten and arsenic (New Consols Mine re-opened briefly in the 1950s) and forestry. Recent re-planting of extensive conifer is characterised mainly by Douglas Fir and Larch. Since the mid-1980s, careful habitat management involving the Duchy, Butterfly Conservation and Cornwall Wildlife Trust has created the conditions for the Heath Fritillary to become re-established. The colony became briefly extinct, but luckily the gene pool had been secured through the creation of a ‘daughter’ colony at Lydford in Devon, from which the Heath Fritillary was successfully reintroduced to Greenscoombe Wood in 2006.
The site can be approached quite easily from the hamlet of Luckett. You can park your car in the
village, near the end of the minor road that leads to the River Tamar and passes Greenscoombe
Farm. Walk about half a mile along this road into the woods, continue downhill, cross a small stream
and take the first track to the right, which rises steeply through the woods. At the top are the open
areas where the Heath Fritillary can usually be seen in June.
Find full location information here:-
The information produced here is thanks to the Butterfly Conservation Trust, Cornish Nature and the Cornwall Wildlife Trust.