December 2023: Restoring and connecting habitats for butterflies in the Wansdyke

Our Chalk Species Revival project is now underway since receiving the good news that our funding application was successful in September 2023.

Here Stevie Upton, Reserve Manager at Natural England, updates us on progress across the amazing Wansdyke landscape area of the project where work has already started to restore and connect habitats for the Duke of Burgundy, marsh fritillary and large blue butterflies, and to consolidate the only UK population of wart-biter bush crickets outside south-east England.  

Dark and light brown butterfly on a yellow flower with a green background
Marsh Fritillary butterfly | ©National Trust Images/Matthew Oates

We hit the ground running when we received the green light for the project in September.  

A lot of work has been going on behind the scenes, with our species experts starting the process of logging current habitat condition and identifying sites with potential as new habitat for our target species.  

We’re fortunate to have secured the services of David Simcox and Sarah Meredith who, as project officers for the Joint Committee for the Re-establishment of the Large Blue Butterfly, have extensive experience including reintroduction of the large blue in the Cotswolds; and Susan Clarke, a butterfly specialist, whose expertise has been instrumental in our understanding of Duke of Burgundy and marsh fritillary populations in this landscape over a number of years. 

As project manager for the Wandsdyke project sites – what we refer to as the ‘northern’ section of the project – I’m involved in work on sites managed by Natural England (Pewsey Downs), the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s Morgan’s Hill, the National Trust’s Calstone and Cherhill Downs, and land owned and managed by members of the Pewsey Downs Farmer Group.  

Multiple sites are needed for this project as the scale of habitat restoration we are aiming for will ensure we maximise the benefits for these vulnerable insect species, giving us the opportunity to create large, functional ecological networks.  

Brown butterfly with white markings resting on a green leaf
Duke of Burgundy ©National Trust Images/Rob Coleman

The groundwork for this project has been underway for many years, and together with the Wiltshire Chalk Partnership team working on this project, we’re excited to see this amazing opportunity starting to take shape. We are hoping to have a real impact here: to make a real difference to the threatened insect species that rely on the wildflower-rich chalk grassland habitats that Wiltshire is famous for.  

Just to pick on one butterfly species, the dapper sounding Duke of Burgundy has been recorded at 160 known colony sites in the UK in the period from 2008-12. To achieve sustainable levels that ensure ‘Favourable Conservation Status’, we need 360 colonies. Currently, Dukes are confined to one small part of the Wansdyke landscape around Morgan’s Hill. We’re working hard to expand their range, so the day we see them colonising sites across the landscape will be a day for celebration.  

So where have we got to?  

First up, we’ve been preparing our plug plants for the first sites that we’re restoring, organising our volunteers and taking advice from our ecologists on where in the landscape to prioritise our planting. Key species in our plant mix include devil’s-bit scabious, the larval foodplant of the marsh fritillary, and cowslip, used by the Duke of Burgundy. 

Purple headed pom-pom style flower with a green background
Devil’s bit Scabious ©National Trust Images/Peter Welsh

For the next 18 months, starting this month (December 2023), we’ll be carrying out conservation and further monitoring work, including the planting of these wildflower plugs and surveying for habitat condition and species.  

It’s a massive task – we want to plant 10,000 plugs before Summer 2024 – and we need lots of volunteers: we really won’t be able to achieve our ambition unless it’s all hands-on deck. 

How can you help? 

Let us know if you would like to take part and help make our vision a reality by signing up here.

Wiltshire Wildlife Trust is facilitating volunteering opportunities for this part of the Chalk Species Revival project, a collaboration between the National Trust, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, RSPB, Natural England, and the Pewsey Downs Farmer Group.

Chalk Species Revival is a project of the Wiltshire Chalk Partnership.  

Wiltshire Chalk Partnership Logo