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Rare butterfly is surprise success for South Downs project

A project to boost numbers of butterflies and chalk grassland in the South Downs National Park near Brighton has unexpectedly seen the return of the silver-spotted skipper butterfly, once close to extinction across the county.

The ‘Brighton Blues’ project, led by the South Downs National Park Authority and supported by a grant of £39,425 awarded by The Veolia Environmental Trust through the Landfill Communities Fund, was set up to improve and increase areas of rare chalk grassland which several species of butterfly including the Adonis blue and chalkhill blue depend on to thrive.

Phillippa Morrison-Price, South Downs National Park Authority ranger, said:

“Chalk grassland is one of the most endangered habitats in the country and vital to the survival of wildlife but it only exists because of the grazing that’s taken place here over thousands of years. Through this project we’ve been able to introduce grazing into new areas and clear encroaching scrub. The result has not just benefitted the Adonis blue and chalkhill blue but also led to the surprise return of the silver-spotted skipper.”

“The benefits of this work will be seen much further too. The South Downs’ chalk downland is also relied on by more than a million people in and around the National Park for clean drinking water and tens of millions of people as a valuable green space.”

Neil Hulme, who works for project partner Butterfly Conservation, said:

“In the 1970s the silver-spotted skipper was so rare that its last two locations were a closely guarded secret. It’s wonderful to see them now flying amongst the iconic blue species of the South Downs. Sightings at Anchor Bottom near Upper Beeding, Mill Hill in Shoreham and at Benfield Hill and Waterhall in Brighton & Hove show the first expansion in its range for nearly ten years.

“We’ve seen many other insects and plants benefitting from this work, showing that decades of decline in this rich and unique habitat can be reversed with good management.”

The Executive Director of The Veolia Environmental Trust, Paul Taylor, said:

“This is great news for the South Downs and the species that call it home, not to mention the local community and the South Downs’ many visitors, who can now enjoy seeing these species of butterfly. The success of this project is testament to the work of the National Park team and the volunteers whose hard work helped make this project happen.

“It is also an excellent example of why the Landfill Communities Fund is a vital source of funding for environmental conservation and improvement projects across England and Wales.”

The Silver-spotted Skipper is one of the latest butterfly species to emerge each year, flying from late July until September. It prefers warm, south-facing slopes with fine grasses such as Sheep’s Fescue and an abundance of chalk grassland flowers. Although small it is a powerful flyer and can be difficult to spot as its olive green and brown wings blend with the colours of the downland turf in late summer. It is only when at rest that the silvery-white spots which give it its name can be seen on the underside of its wings.