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Fire threatens return of extinct butterfly

Date: 19 Apr 2017

Arsonists are believed to be behind the devastation of one of the last few areas of lowland raised bog in Lancashire and put in jeopardy a project to restore a butterfly to the mossland where it has been extinct for more than 50 years.

Three years ago the large heath butterfly was reintroduced to Heysham Moss as part of a joint project with Chester Zoo.

The recent fire has swept across the Moss destroying much of the habitat that is currently supporting the establishing large heath colony.

While many of the plants will recover slowly over the next few years it is a serious blow to the ongoing restoration of this special place that is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Critically, the fire has also almost certainly wiped out any chance of survival of the large heath.

The nature reserve is owned by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and LWT Reserve Officer Reuben Neville said: “The fire has probably destroyed the caterpillars which are active among the vegetation at this time of the year and any that have survived will struggle to find any remaining food plants.

“Whether this was arson or just carelessness it will have a serious effect on years of work restoring habitat here and is a huge blow to the work of the re-introduction project. It is heartbreaking for everyone involved.”

“People need to understand the devastation they can cause by starting fires on precious areas for wildlife. It is not only those today, but future generations that may lose out on the chance to see this rare and beautiful butterfly here in Heysham again. It can only be hoped that one day they may appreciate the implications of their selfish and mindless actions.”

Sarah Bird at Chester Zoo commented. “We are all devastated after all the work that’s been done restoring the site and raising and releasing the butterflies. It is particularly sad for the children that were so excited to help us with the butterfly releases in the last few years.”

Echoing the sentiments and principles of the Zoo she went on “We won’t stand back. We will continue to fight for the future of species such as the large heath butterfly”

Since the Trust purchased Heysham Moss in 2004 extensive habitat management work has been undertaken and the habitat was considered sufficient to again support a population of the large heath. The two main requirements are tussocks of hare’s tail cotton grass; the larval food plant, and cross-leaved heath; the main nectar source.

The project started back in 2012 when Chester Zoo offered to support the project alongside main funder Lancashire Environmental Fund and become a project partner. The captive breeding programme began in 2013, when a small number of adult females from the donor site at Winmarleigh Moss, which stills supports a healthy population, were taken to Chester Zoo. Under the guidance of experts at the Zoo, these butterflies were bred under controlled conditions throughout their life cycle, and released as adult butterflies onto Heysham Moss.

During the early part of the project the Trust worked with both the local fire service and police going into schools to raise awareness of the site and the dangers posed by fires. The Trust have also undertaken wider community work in the local area for many years and it was defining moment for our work when a number of Year Four pupils from the local Trumacar Primary School helped to release the first large heath butterflies onto the Moss in 2014.

Breeding was observed very soon after, boosting hopes that they would successfully colonise the site, and over the next two years work continued with further releases. During these two years peak counts of over 50 individuals were recorded most likely including both recently released adults and those that had successfully bred on site. This year would have given us our first proper look at how the locally establishing colony was doing.

Reuben said: “The large heath butterfly was formerly much more widespread in North West England, inhabiting lowland raised bog and occasionally blanket bog habitats. Now extinct in Cheshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside, the Large Heath hangs on in just two widely separated sites in Lancashire and while we will continue to work to protect the large heath butterfly, it is very sad to think that Heysham Moss may never again be considered alongside these sites.”