Extinct Tortoiseshell Butterflies Return To The UK!

Sep 09, 2022by Olivia - F&F

After vanishing more than 50 years ago, the elusive large tortoiseshell butterfly has been rediscovered on the rewilded estate of Knepp in West Sussex.

Large Tortoiseshell ButterflyLarge Tortoiseshell Butterfly

Image: @GerryHinde / Twitter

Tortoiseshell Butterflies Have Been Locally-Extinct For 50+ Years

This beautiful butterfly is breeding once again! The large, orange and black tortoiseshell butterfly has been spotted across the UK after being officially extinct for more than half a century. In 2019, evidence grew of a tortoiseshell butterfly breeding colony in Portland, Dorset. 

A local in the area, Gerry Hinde, took to Twitter to report his exciting discovery: “A large tortoiseshell... definitely no longer extinct in the UK. I hope this is the first of many sightings of the Large Tortoiseshell, in Portland, Dorset and beyond. A returning species of butterfly has to be really welcome news given the loss of natural habitat in recent times," Gerry said.

It’s not known why exactly the large tortoiseshell butterfly became extinct in the 20th century, and that’s why the return of the stunning species is so baffling!

Large Tortoiseshell ButterflyLarge Tortoiseshell Butterfly

Image: Pete Eeles / Butterfly Conservation

Why Is The Large Tortoiseshell Butterfly Making A Comeback?

Large tortoiseshell caterpillars feed on a variety of trees including elm, aspen, sallow, and fruit trees. So, it’s assumed that the caterpillars and butterflies disappeared alongside the outbreak of Dutch elm disease that afflicted elm trees. 

A duo of lepidopterists — Neil Hulme and Matthew Oates — recently discovered the breeding activity of large tortoiseshell butterflies on the rewilded estate of Knepp in West Sussex. They found signs of caterpillars consuming leaves of wych elm in the rewilded farmland. But, even they’re not entirely sure as to why the large tortoiseshell butterfly has made a return!

“This butterfly is still officially extinct but the evidence suggests it is making a comeback,” said Oates. According to Oates, numbers of the large tortoiseshell are rising in the UK again – possibly due to their response to climate change.

Large Tortoiseshell ButterflyLarge Tortoiseshell Butterfly

Image: Pete Withers / Butterfly Conservation

Rewilding Project A Success In Knepp, West Sussex!

The large tortoiseshell butterflies were spotted in Knepp, West Sussex, alongside another colony in the East Sussex valley. This rewilded scrubland area in Knepp has been described as “ideal” for the large tortoiseshell butterflies, by Oates.

Wildlife in this area has skyrocketed in the past two decades, all thanks to Isabella Tree and her husband, Charlie Burrell. The duo began a rewilding project in Knepp more than 20 years ago to restore native wildlife. Recently, the area has seen more than 40 singing male nightingales and a record number of stork nests, which were reintroduced into the area. 

According to Isabella Tree, “we always think we’ve got to intervene and bring things back, but again and again, we see that it’s just about habitat and providing the space for nature and many species can come back on their own”.

After being extinct for more than half a century, we’re glad to hear that this gorgeous butterfly is making a comeback in the UK! 

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