The Return of the Grizzled Skipper

How hands on gentle activism is helping to reintroduce a lost butterfly to an English county

Being a butterfly in these days of climate change and air pollution is not easy. There has been a steady decline in butterfly numbers across the UK over the last twenty years or more. One or two species do well as the average temperature increases and with it their range too increases. Others, the majority, find it tough. How can we help them?

There are things we can do to help beyond protesting against climate change. We can put our activism into action through volunteering and supporting causes not just via money but hands on action.

One such butterfly in decline is the Grizzled Skipper, a fairly unremarkable looking butterfly at first sight but closer examination reveals a beautifully patterned set of mottled brown checkerboard patterned or, as the name says, ‘grizzled’ wings.

The Grizzled Skipper is still seen in good numbers to the south of the UK midlands but has disappeared from some areas where it was once common such as Derbyshire. It’s quite small and difficult to spot in flight.

Calke Abbey is a National Trust property in South Derbyshire where the Grizzled Skipper was once a common sight. Not now. The last time a Grizzled Skipper was seen in Derbyshire was 2007. The National Trust in partnership with Butterfly Conservation are hoping that by working together they can reintroduce the Grizzled Skipper to the grounds of Calke Abbey and then hopefully wider into the county from Calke.

They released a few Grizzled Skippers into the Calke Abbey grounds in 2018 but it’s 2019, this year, that they have made strides forward with the reintroduction scheme.

Over the year from May 2018 to May 2019 the grounds at Calke Abbey have been planted with some of the Grizzled Skipper’s favourite host plants and other plants have been thinned to make butterfly corridors hence maximising the survival and breeding rates of the butterflies. One of the plants it particularly likes is wild strawberry and Calke Abbey have pulled out grasses and planted many wild strawberry plants just for the Grizzled Skipper.

The Grizzled Skipper’s caterpillars love Wild Strawberry, Bramble, Agrimony, Salad Burnet and Creeping Cinquefoil. It is a mixture of these plants that the National Trust have planted at Calke Abbey. They have also thinned out other plants that were taking over and choking host plants to create what they call ‘butterfly’ corridors. Much of the work has been supported and undertaken alongside full time workers by volunteers from The National Trust and Butterfly Conservation. A quiet activism but successful activism.

The Grizzled Skipper is the smallest of the skippers. It is one of the earliest skippers to appear in spring. It is known for basking on the ground early in the morning in the spring sunshine. It loves bare ground and this explains the importance of the volunteers in helping to clear ground of grasses, a mundane and back breaking job but essential and rewarding when eventually a Grizzled Skipper is seen sunning itself on the bare ground.

Derbyshire County Butterfly Recorder, Ken Orpe, told Butterfly Conservation:

“Before this lovely butterfly disappeared from Derbyshire in 2007, part of the Calke Estate was an important site for the species and it was once there in good numbers, so it’s very fitting that this was chosen as the location for the re-introduction."

It’s good that Calke Abbey is reintroducing the grizzled skipper but now I’m wondering why the grizzled skipper? Why not one of the other myriad butterflies in danger of extinction? Well, you have to be pragmatic. It would be great to save all the butterflies but as individuals and communities that’s nigh on impossible. By choosing a species that is still around in relatively similar areas and one that previously lived in your area you can perhaps identify why it declined and take some simple steps to attract it back or reintroduce it to improved conditions so that it might just thrive and build a new self-sustaining population.

If you live in the UK, you could start by joining an organisation such as Butterfly Conservation. Similar organisations exist around the world and a quick internet search should put you in touch with your local conservation group.

Butterflies are an indicator that spring has truly arrived. Yes, they are seen in summer but it is in spring that we first see them. In Japanese haiku poetry culture, ‘butterfly’ is always a spring kigo, a seasonal word, that gives us, evokes, spring within these tiny poems.

Here’s a haiku by SHIKI (1867-1902) Translated by Lucien Stryk and included in Extracts from CAGE OF FIREFLIES, published by Swallow Press, 1993:

White butterflydarting among pinks -whose spirit?

If we wish to continue seeing such butterflies as Shiki’s white butterfly or the Grizzled Skipper, then we need to act now.

What will you do?

wild animals
How does it work?
Read next: Calling All Wannabe Pet Owners
Paul Conneally

Paul Conneally is a Cultural Forager, poet and artist. 

He writes on culture in its widest sense from art to politics, music and science and all points between.

His Twitter handle is @littleonion and on Instagram he is @little___onion

See all posts by Paul Conneally