Duke of Burgundy butterfly discovered in brand new colony, and it’s the biggest in the country

There is good news for the vanishingly rare Duke of Burgundy butterfly, as a new colony has been discovered. Annunciata Elwes reports.

The population of the threatened, orange-and-brown Duke of Burgundy butterfly has received a boost from the discovery of a new colony in Dorset farmland, attributed to a farmer’s efforts to improve biodiversity.

Dr Martin Warren of Butterfly Conservation was strolling during lockdown on a path through a 60-acre chalk downland hill, part of John Hiscock’s organic dairy farm, when he happened upon what could be the largest Duke of Burgundy colony in the UK. The species is down 84% since the 1970s and, now, most colonies are in central southern England, with a few in the North.

Mr Hiscock — who supplies the Duchy brand at Waitrose, which insists its UK dairy farmers devote 10% of their land to biodiversity and habitat management — recently benefited from Defra’s Countryside Stewardship scheme, allowing him to reintroduce cattle. The Dukes were found in banks rich in cowslips (excellent caterpillar foodstuff) that, without grazing, would have been covered in long grasses.

‘We have farmed organically for more than 20 years, with no pesticides, sprays or chemical fertilisers, allowing the wildlife habitat to improve and these rare butterflies to thrive, together with many other species,’ says Mr Hiscock.

About the Duke of Burgundy butterfly

A Duke of Burgundy [Hamearis lucina] butterfly resting on a leaf with its wings open. Credit: Getty

The rarity of the butterfly has made it elusive, even to keen butterfly spotters. Naturalist and author John Wright included it in his list of a dozen most beautiful butterflies in Britain, writing in Country Life a couple of years ago, yet even he has spotted one himself: ‘The sombre blacks and Fabergé intricacies of this rare species make it a must-see butterfly, although I fear I never will,’ he wrote.

Officially named Hamearis lucina, it is a small creature with a wingspan of just over an inch (typically 29-32mm). They’re a breed that lives in scrubby grassland and woodland clearings, very rarely visiting flowers. Males are most often spotted, perching on leaves; the females, according to Butterfly Conservation, ‘are elusive and spend much of their time resting or flying close to the ground.’