Monday, 3 August 2015

Marsh Fritillary Butterfly Conservation

Way back in May, when I seemed to have more time!.... I went along to the Solway Coast to learn more about conserving the Marsh Fritillary butterfly, Euphydryas aurinia. The day was organised by Rhia McBain from the Solway Wetlands Partnership and there were experts on hand: Keith Walter from Natural England and Steve Doyle from Butterfly Conservation. 

The day began in the classroom learning about the Marsh Fritillary conservation project that has been running since 2005. Before we got started we had a look at some of the caterpillars ready for release: The caterpillars have been bred in captivity by licensed breeders working on the project and they have been thriving. The wiggly and lively little guys were very keen to get out of their box!

Marsh Fritillary Caterpillars bred in captivity
Marsh Fritillary caterpillars ready for release and trying to escape!
Wiggly energetic caterpillars!

The brief story is that in 2004 there were approximately only 155 Marsh Fritillary caterpillars left in Cumbria. The main reasons for the decline of the Marsh Fritillary is due to loss of habitat, namely wet meadows. A project was set up to try and rectify the situation and the aim of the project was to restore viable and genetically diverse populations of the Marsh Fritillary to Cumbria.  

The main food source of the Marsh Fritillary butterfly is Devil's Bit Scabious and this thrives in wet meadows. Due to agriculture, there has been much drainage and fertilization of these areas resulting in a loss if habitat and the main food plant for the butterflies.

Devil's Bit Scabious - Succisa pratensis
Other problems for the butterflies are fragmentation of habitat as a result of hedges and roads and so populations become cut off from one another. This reduces mating between populations and thus results in a reduction in genetic diversity. So another aim of the  project was to preserve and manage some habitat for the Marsh Fritillary and increase the populations again. So how is this achieved?

Heading to the release site
Basically butterfly experts like Keith and Steve breed the caterpillars in captivity and then release them into the wild. Suitable sites that have the correct habitat and food availability are found for the caterpillars and negotiations are made with the landowners to use the land as a release site and to continue to manage the site in such a way that the butterflies have a chance of survival. Then you get a group of willing volunteers to wander across fields with tubs of caterpillars, and high-tec equipment such as plastic spoons to release the caterpillars into the wild.

Trusty caterpillar and butterfly volunteers
The release of the caterpillars is normally done in a methodical manner with everyone spreading out in a row and walking in formation to find a plant to place some caterpillars on. As I had to head off to work on the release day, I wasn't able to be part of the formation. However, as a special treat I was allowed my own little release of some wiggly caterpillars into the wild.....go little guys (see pic below)!!
Devils Bit Scabious leaves - release site for caterpillars
Getting ready for release
My personal release of wrigglers!
Basically after the release, the caterpillars are left their own devices to grow and develop and hopefully to increase the population. It is now the beginning of August - where did all that time go?? and it is now time to head back out to do a larval web count to see how many of the little wrigglers have survived. Unfortunately its that time of year when I have got too many other things on so I won't be attending but I am looking forward to hearing how it goes!

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