The sighting at Hutchinson’s Bank at the weekend of a butterfly thought to have been extinct for nearly 100 years has put wildlife enthusiasts into a bit of a flap.
The sighting of the black-veined white butterfly was made by Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent and an amateur wildlife enthusiast, following a visit to the nature reserve near New Addington on Saturday.
The sighting – others on the same guided tour reported seeing multiple black-veined whites – was reported on BBC Breakfast News this morning and by The Times.
But some conservationists poured cold water on the species revival celebrations, suggesting that the black-veined whites had been captive-bred and “chucked out”, while also alleging that Hutchinson’s Bank has a “track record” for such dimly-regarded behaviour.
Hutchinson’s Bank, which is managed by the London Wildlife Trust, is a large area of secluded chalk grassland and woodland just a short walk from the New Addington tram stop. It has also benefited from the return of traditional sheep grazing. Supporting many rare plants and insects, it is noted for the presence of the very rare Glanville fritillary.
Hutchinsons Bank, which has been a nature reserve since a successful campaign supported by David Attenborough in the 1980s, had come under threat when Croydon Council’s Brick by Brick house-building company wanted to develop a site by the reserve’s entrance, a plan which was only finally dropped when the council crashed its finances and BxB became… well… extinct.
Gardner had lepidopterists across the country all a’flutter yesterday when he posted on social media, “A superb afternoon at [Hutchinson’s Bank] yesterday thanks to Leonard Spocking and Philip who helped me find the black-veined whites as well as adonis blue, small blue, grizzled skipper and others.”
Gardner later tweeted, a little apologetically, “OK, not the greatest photo but this is the incredibly rare black-veined white butterfly that has been officially extinct in Britain for 90 years.
“This week they’ve mysteriously appeared on the edge of London and no one knows where they’ve come from.”
Given the warm weekend weather, some suggested that perhaps the butterflies had arrived here from the continent, where they are still thriving.
Others, though, claimed that they did know where the extinct butterflies had come from.
Chris Corrigan is the interim chair of Sussex Wildlife Trust, and he tweeted, “Reintrioduction when properly planned is an important conservation tool. ‘Chucking out’ isn’t. Most fail, butterflies condemned to death, mask real trends, origin of stock and worse still create the impression that this can solve butterfly declines. Habitat is everything!”
Corrigan added that the practice of “chucking out”, where captive-bred butterflies are released into the wild “gets problematic” because it can be “conflated with nature restoration (it is nowhere near)”.
“Legitimate butterfly reintroductions have been done,” Corrigan wrote.
Previous attempts to reintroduce the black-veined white, or Aporia crataegi, to the downlands of southern England have been undertaken by no less a figure than Winston Churchill, who bred the butterflies at his country home Chartwell in the 1940s (like he had nothing better to do with his time…).
The insect, which has a wing span of about three inches and thrives in a warm environment with hawthorn and blackthorn trees, was wiped out in Britain by 1925 “because of changes in land usage and several years of wet and cold autumn weather”, according to a report in today’s Times.
Churchill’s attempt failed to take off after his gardener cut the cocoons from hawthorn bushes where they had been placed.
Today, another Gardner, Frank, more careful about natural habitat (he has appeared in previous series of BBC’s Springwatch), wrote that the black-veined whites, “could easily be mistaken for the common or garden cabbage white butterflies seen in Britain every summer”.
But he wrote, “There’s nothing common about the black-veined white on this side of the Channel.”
Gardner’s report confirms the captive-bred release theory. “The charity Butterfly Conservation, which monitors butterfly numbers in Britain, told the BBC the insects will have been released, but they don’t know by who or why.
“They added that while it’s lovely for people to be able to see them, it probably does not signify a spontaneous recovery of an extinct species.”
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