Monday 23 May 2022

Chequered Skippers in England 22nd May 2022

Until today I had only ever seen one Chequered Skipper and that was on a family holiday near Strontian on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula in northwest Scotland, where I found one in Purple Moor Grass on a dull afternoon in June, more years ago than I care to remember

In Scotland they were first discovered in 1939 and remain to this day a rare and restricted butterfly, being generally found within a twenty five mile radius of Fort William, a notable location being Glasdrum Wood. They were extinct in England by 1976, as coppicing in their woodland habitats had fallen out of favour, allowing the sunny, open woodland glades and rides they favoured to become dark, overgrown and unsuitable.

Butterfly Conservation set about restoring suitable habitat for this butterfly in England by consulting with Forestry England and local, sympathetic landowners and finally, after four years of dialogue between the UK and Belgium, Chequered Skipper butterflies, collected from the Belgian Ardenne Forest, were released at a secret location in Northamptonshire in 2018.

In May 2019 the first English born Chequered Skipper since 1976 was seen on the wing in its secret location.Further re-introductions bolstered the existing population and the project was declared a success. However the survival and continued existence of these re-introductions will always require that their habitat is artificially maintained by working closely with Forestry England and other involved landowners. Re-introductions in other suitable locations are now planned for the future .

With the re-introduction declared a success and sufficient numbers of this butterfly on the wing, the secret location was made public in 2022 and was revealed to be Fineshade Wood, part of a much larger area of woodland in Northamptonshire called Rockingham Forest. 

Today I arranged to meet Mark (R) at Fineshade Wood around 1pm as the weather was going to be ideal for butterflies, being sunny and warm.

All went to plan and after being relieved of a rather excessive £6.00 each for car parking, we eventually found a warden at the Visitor Centre who was able to direct us to the right area to look for the skipper. Being a sunny Sunday the car park and Visitor Centre were very busy but following the warden's directions we soon left most people behind and followed a wide track towards an area called Westhay Wood which was considered the best place to look for the Chequered Skippers. 

It has to be said we set off with some trepidation, brought on by the fact we were told that a guided 6km walk that morning had only managed to find one Chequered Skipper. Would we do better?

Well yes, we got off to a good start, as once in the sun and out of the wooded area I saw a small dark brown butterfly zigzagging low over the short grass and bramble growing by the track. It flew further into the brambles but there we had to leave it, as we had been cautioned to remain  on the track and if we found a Chequered Skipper under no circumstances stray off the track in pursuit of it.  

Frustratingly, the tiny insect footled around for a minute, half hidden amongst bramble leaves growing in a ditch and then flew even further into the wood and was gone. At least we could say we had seen one and within ten minutes, if that, and our expectations were raised accordingly although I hoped to see one for longer and have better views.

We followed the track for one of its 6kms, losing sight of each other in the process.Mark had wandered off along one of the rides that ran off the main track. I opted to continue to follow the main track but consequently had no idea where Mark had got to. No matter, we could liase, whenever our phones got a signal!

The sun shone across the open track, it was very warm and it was down to shirtsleeves as I diligently cased the specially created habitat of short grass and low bramble by the main track but failed to get the desired result.

Various other butterfly enthusiasts came along the track, greeting me and asking if I had any luck in finding a Chequered Skipper. I told them of our brief encounter with one but for the next hour I saw nothing apart from a few Dingy Skippers, which set my pulse racing but not for long.

I began to become weary and despondent at my lack of success.Was I only going to see one Chequered Skipper, like those on the guided walk earlier? Tiring and now half way around the 6km trail I tried calling Mark and as luck would have it my phone finally had a signal

Where are you Mark

No idea

Where are you? he asked

No idea

There was not a sign or landmark for us to use as a directional aid

Mark then informed me he had just found a Chequered Skipper and excused himself to photograph it.

I was bereft

A minute or so later he called back but we had the same problem, neither of us knew where the other was.

I gave up, frustrated, and ending the call carried on walking the track. I came to a ride running off to my left.

Ewan! Over here!

By sheer chance I had found Mark, currently standing guard over a Chequered Skipper half way down the ride. I walked, as fast as I could, the short distance to Mark.He pointed to the grass on the left of the ride and there in all its brown and cream spotted glory was a very obliging and pristine Chequered Skipper, perched on a stem of grass. We made the most of this very co-operative individual, which could not have posed more obligingly on various leaves and grass stems.It became obvious this was a male holding terrtory, waiting for a female to pass by and although it flew regularly it never went far, remaining within a thirty metre stretch of the ride

All of us got the images we wished for, you literally could not fail, and it was a total delight to watch and photograph this very rare butterly for an hour or so.

They are very small, around 3cm and have a fast and erratic flight which sometimes makes it hard to follow the butterfly as it zips low over the grass. This individual spent most of its time basking in the sun and never nectared on any of the wild flowers around it. They are said to prefer Bugle for nectar but not this one.

This re-introduced butterfly's food plant is also different to that of the Scottish population, being grasses such as False Brome and Wood Smallreed rather than Purple Moor Grass.

After an hour we were sated with close up views and photographs of this beautifully marked butterfly and made our way back along the remaining 2km of track to the Visitor Centre, noting a rather nice Grizzled Skipper and another three Chequered Skippers on the way.

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