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Our nature conservation work at Minchinhampton and Rodborough Commons

Large Blue butterfly, male
The open wings of the Large Blue butterfly | © National Trust Images / Matthew Oates

After 150 years, Britain's rarest butterfly, the Large Blue, has returned to Minchinhampton and Rodborough Commons. Thanks to an innovative grazing regime and programme of scrub control, they have been spotted after an absence of many years. Along with other conservation work to ensure that summer nesting skylarks can raise their young undisturbed, the work continues to provide a safe habitat for a variety of wildlife in the area.

Reintroducing Britain’s rarest butterfly to Rodborough Common

Large Blue butterflies disappeared from the UK in the 1970s and were declared extinct in Britain in 1979. A successful collaboration between the National Trust, Butterfly Conservation, the Limestone's Living Legacies Back from the Brink project, Natural England, Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, Royal Entomological Society and the Minchinhampton and Rodborough Committees of Commoners has seen them reintroduced back onto the commons.

Key facts

  • 1870 Last sighting of a Large Blue butterfly on Rodborough Common
  • Seven partner organisations involved
  • 1,085 Large Blue larvae released in 2019
  • 27 May 2020 First Large Blue butterfly spotted on the commons
  • It has a wingspan of more than two inches

Grazing cattle

An experimental conservation grazing scheme has been fundamental to the reintroduction of the butterflies with electric fences being used to contain some of the free-roaming cows.

Perfect conditions for wild thyme

Grazing cattle were one piece of the jigsaw. Managing and controlling the scrub was the other. Together, the combination provided the perfect conditions for wild thyme and a tiny, but crucial species of red ant to flourish. The roaming cattle do a fantastic job maintaining the precious grassland. However, they can be very selective in their eating habits.

Cow relaxing in the sun on Minchinhampton Common, Gloucestershire
Cow relaxing in the sun on Minchinhampton Common, Gloucestershire | © National Trust Images / Cara Laver

Electric fields

The graziers are helping us to redress the balance. Some of their cows are being grazed in small, temporary compartments in areas that haven't been grazed for a while. The grass sward has become so long that it's lead to a loss of the characteristic wildflowers and invertebrates.

A rare flower

As the cows weave their magic, the compartments will be moved around so it's a win-win for the cattle and nature. The rare pasqueflower will also benefit from the new system of restrictive grazing. It thrives in places where the grass is kept short.

'Creating the right conditions for this globally endangered butterfly to not only survive but to hopefully thrive has been the culmination of many years' work. None of this would've been possible without the combined efforts of conservationists and the local graziers.'

- David Armstrong, Lead Ranger and Stroud Landscape Project Manager

Surveying ants and plants

Over several years, Dave Simcox, the ecologist that led the reintroduction, painstakingly carried out regular surveys of the ants and foodplants across the commons. The surveys provided the team with the evidence they needed so that the commons could once again support populations of the Large Blue.

Herbivore to carnivore

The Large Blue's entire existence depends on one species of tiny red ant, myrmica sabultei. The unsuspecting ants are tricked into thinking that the parasitic larvae of the Large Blue is one of their own and carry it to their nest.

It's at this point that the caterpillar turns from a harmless herbivore to cunning carnivore as it feeds on ant grubs until it's ready to pupate and emerge the following summer.

Turning the dream into reality

Successful collaborations have been key to the success of the reintroduction. Some of the caterpillars that were introduced came from Daneway Banks, a Cotswold site managed by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust and the Royal Entomological Society.

Back from the Brink project

The Back from the Brink project and Butterfly Conservation supplied the materials and funded a contractor to construct the temporary grazing compartments.

Back from the Brink funding from the National Lottery also enabled the captive rearing necessary to bring the butterfly back to the commons.

How aerial photography helps nesting skylarks

On the face of it, military planes and drones are unlikely protagonists in the protection of skylarks, orchids, beetles and wildflower meadows. Aerial photos taken from RAF planes in the 1950s of Rodborough Common and images captured recently by modern day drones reveal how human activity has affected the landscape over time.

Comparing images

A series of photos taken between 1950 and 2017 show that the network of footpaths that weave across the common has almost doubled. If the footpaths keep increasing at the rate they have during recent years, serious damage will be caused to the landscape, vegetation and wildlife.

A close up of a skylark foraging on the ground, in coastal grassland
A close up of a skylark foraging on the ground at Minchinhampton and Rodborough Commons | © National Trust Images / Nick Upton

Working together

Working together with the Rodborough Common Conservation Panel to look at ways of preventing further paths from being created is one way of ensuring this.

Protecting nature

During the spring and summer skylarks love to nest in the long grasses. We're working hard to find ways to prevent people disturbing nature and wildlife without limiting their time in this magical place.

Protecting nature and wildlife means that the common will remain special for future generations.

Please note that only authorised drone use is permitted over the places we look after.

Thank you

With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.

Duke of Burgundy butterfly


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