Endangered Marsh Fritillary butterfly returns to Brownsham

A marsh fritillary butterfly close up

One of the UK’s most threatened butterflies, the Marsh Fritillary, has recently been found at Brownsham, near Hartland, for the first time since 1974! Brownsham is home to one of Britain’s rarest grassland habitats, culm grassland, which is one of the butterfly’s preferred habitats.

Brightly-coloured and speckled, the Marsh Fritillary is listed by Butterfly Conservation as one of the UK’s most threatened butterfly species, seriously declined due to habitat loss and degradation. It’s also considered vulnerable at a European level. Our Bideford Bay & Hartland rangers were really pleased to discover the butterfly in one of the restored areas of culm grass, which is only found in north and mid-Devon and small areas of Cornwall.

Work to restore the land has helped provide the ideal habitat for the Marsh Fritillary to re-colonise. Rangers removed scrub and woodland from the area, which once cleared allowed dormant seeds of mixed grasses and flowers that had been lying under the scrub to regenerate. A mix of native breed cattle were then introduced, including Highland Cattle and Belted Galloways to graze the land lightly, helping to promote a varied age and height structure to the vegetation.

The Marsh Fritillary’s main food plant, ‘Devils-bit-scabious’ is also found in the rare culm grassland, so the arrival of the butterfly is a strong indicator that the hard work to improve habitat is working. It also means that the restored grassland is in a healthy condition for all wildlife.

Ranger Gregg Wilson said, “I was thrilled to find the Marsh Fritillary in the culm and couldn’t believe my eyes. Luckily I had a camera with me and managed to get a shot of it resting in the sun. The site has been in a good enough condition for the Marsh Fritillary for some years now, so to find it is really exciting and makes all the years of hard work worth it.”

Funding from Natural England helped the Trust carry out the work.  The Marsh Fritillary butterfly emerges around mid-May until mid-July.