Wildlife organisations take action for declining coastal butterfly on Wirral

Rachel Bradshaw

Cheshire Wildlife Trust have planted sea holly on Red Rocks Nature Reserve with support from Chester Zoo and Butterfly Conservation Cheshire and Wirral Branch.

The beautiful sea holly plant was once plentiful along West Kirby dunes. But due to a grass fire on the reserve during the heatwave two years ago and some targeted vandalism, large swathes of the plant have been destroyed.

The grayling butterfly, which nationally has seen a 70% decline in recent years and is now officially listed as vulnerable, loves to feed off the sea holly plant. Populations of the butterfly were also affected by the grass fire at Red Rocks in 2019.
Adult grayling butterflies emerge in early July and are around for the rest of the month and into August. They are the UK’s largest brown butterfly and a master of disguise. They can mysteriously disappear as soon as they land, perfectly camouflaged against a background of bare sand as they rest with their wings closed. 

The sand dunes at Red Rocks Nature Reserve make it the perfect environment for the grayling butterfly. Monitoring of them has been taking place for many years with annual records through UKBMS (United Kingdom Butterfly Monitoring Scheme) and also weekly through Dave Costello, Wirral Conservation Officer of Butterfly Conservation Cheshire and Wirral Branch, who records on the reserve each week from 1st March to 31st October. There is only a single generation of butterflies each year, so the sightings of them are very important for the Trust. 

Dave Costello says: 
“Grayling butterflies have been disappearing all over the country so it’s hugely encouraging that so many people and organisations are coming together to try and save the dwindling population of Britain’s largest brown butterfly at Red Rocks. I’ve been recording this butterfly at Red Rocks for years as part of a national recording project and know how essential today’s planting of Sea Holly is.”

Chester Zoo have supported the Trust through the sea holly project which started in October 2019, by germinating over 200 sea holly plants. The plants were then cared for at the zoo’s plant nursery for over a year. The sea holly produces flowers in the second year, so planting it now will give the plant the best chance of survival as well as provide the all-important food source for the grayling butterfly.

Richard Hewitt, Nursery Team Manager at Chester Zoo says:
“At a time when it’s more important than ever to be protecting our native wildlife, it’s fantastic to be part of a conservation project with a local partner that could revitalise a precious North West ecosystem. By mirroring the conditions the plant is used to in the wild and closely following their development, the nursery team here at Chester Zoo have produced a healthy group of more than 200 sea holly plants, ready for planting as part of this exciting recovery trial. This project could make a big difference in preventing extinction of the vulnerable grayling butterfly and we can’t wait to see the first results.”

Sarah Bennett, Development Manager for Cheshire Wildlife Trust says:
“This is a fantastic partnership approach to local species conservation. Planting sea holly is one way we can help grayling at Red Rocks Nature Reserve as it’s a really important nectar source for the butterflies. As a trial project we really hope it succeeds and that we see the lovely purple sea holly flowers appear across the dunes later this summer.”
If you’re planning a day trip to Red Rocks in the summer, keep your eyes peeled for both the sea holly and the grayling butterfly!

Red Rocks Nature Reserve is owned by Royal Liverpool Golf Club and is one of more than 30 nature reserves across the region managed by Cheshire Wildlife Trust.

Videos and photos of the sea holly planting day can be found on Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s and Chester Zoo’s social media channels.

More information on Red Rocks can be found on our website: www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/nature-reserves/red-rocks-marsh