Conservationists in a flutter: How saving rare butterflies can generate profits

Story highlights

  • One of Britain's most critically endangered butterflies is making a comeback
  • The heath fritillary conservation scheme partners conservationists with private landowners
  • The project generates cash and could be replicated to save other endangered butterflies, say Butterfly Conservation
One of the UK's most critically endangered butterflies is making a comeback thanks to a profit making partnership between private landowners and conservation organizations.
The heath fritillary -- a rare species exclusive to the south of England that thrives in cleared woodland environments -- has declined sharply over the past 25 years as forest clearing has become less common.
But population numbers are on the rise again after the introduction of a forestry management scheme that enables rural landowners to cash in by creating butterfly habitats on their property.
"We were down to 12 colonies (of heath fritillary) in 1995 and most of those were very small," says Dr. Martin Warren, chief executive of Butterfly Conservation, the organization behind the projects implementation.
"Since then we've been able to work with landowners to get the management back up again and we are now looking at 25 colonies in the same area."
The conservation scheme works by first sourcing locations where there are remnants of heath fritillary colonies.
Those who own the land identified during this process -- be they individuals, businesses or wildlife trusts -- are then approached for permission to carry out the conservation work.
This primarily consists of clearing the areas pinpointed of their indigenous plant life and repopulating them with the lighter foliage the heath fritillary requires to prosper.
If landowners agree to take part in the project, they are then able to sell on the discarded lumber that accumulates during the clearing and ensuing maintenance process at a profit.
"A lot of this is about persuasion," says Warren. "You have to deal with loads of different people who all have their own agenda and financial constraints."
"When you go in there and say 'there is a rare butterfly on your land' you can sometimes get a very bad response," he adds.
Although Warren admits the profit margins remain relatively small at this stage and that the scheme itself relies on grants from the Forestry Commission to break even, he sees potential for much larger projects in the future.
He says that there are currently numerous sites throughout the UK -- where nearly three quarters of butterfly species have seen their numbers decline in the last 10 years -- being scouted for their suitability by Butterfly Conservation.
There are also scores of endangered butterfly species across Europe that could benefit from the implementation of similar cleared woodland schemes, he adds.
"There are a whole suite of them (countries) where woodlands are not being managed to the detriment of butterflies," says Warren.
Yet despite his enthusiasm for the project, Warren cautions that there must be a balance struck between maintaining natural forest environments and manipulating their makeup through woodland clearing.
"We wouldn't advocate every woodland area be managed as there are many other species that depend on mature woodland to thrive," he says.
If an equilibrium between profit, species conservation and respecting natural forest ecosystems can be achieved however, all kinds of diverse forest wildlife could benefit, he adds.