The Chequered Skipper, although always scarce, became extinct in England in 1976 as a result of habitat loss caused by changes in woodland management that saw a decline in coppicing and management of wide tracks (rides), and an increase in conifer plantations which were unsuitable for the butterfly.
Although the Chequered Skipper is found in parts of Scotland, conservationists always hoped to reintroduce it to England if suitable habitat conditions could be recreated.
Re-establishment trials took place in the mid-1990s in Lincolnshire. Although unsuccessful, the lessons learned helped provide vital information to guide a reintroduction attempt in Northamptonshire.
Butterfly Conservation has been planning this reintroduction project for many years and by working collaboratively with our Back from the Brink partners, we realised our ambition.
The release of Chequered Skipper butterflies into Rockingham Forest in 2018 followed four years of careful planning with partners and authorities in the UK and in Belgium to agree techniques, secure permissions and ensure the right habitat management was in place to support the new population.
Restoring into Ideal Conditions
The Back from the Brink project enabled parts of the butterfly’s former stronghold in Rockingham Forest to be restored to ideal conditions with wide, flower-filled rides (trackways). Over 7km of woodland rides were restored and 23ha of vegetation was managed, creating a network of habitats into which the Chequered Skipper can expand and thrive. Forestry England have also worked to improve the woodland habitat by widening the rides through the forest and creating more sunny open habitats which the butterflies prefer.
In 2018 Butterfly Conservation ecologists travelled to Belgium to collect Chequered Skipper adults from the Fagne-Famenne region in the south of the country, where they are widespread. With the help of Belgian experts from the Research Institute for Nature and Forest and the Département de L’Etude du Milieu Naturel et Agricole, butterflies were collected and stored in cool conditions overnight. After undergoing checks to ensure all the butterflies were healthy, carried out by a vet from the Institute of Zoology, the butterflies, a mix of males and females, were taken via Eurotunnel across the Channel and transferred to Fineshade Wood, part of Rockingham Forest, where they were released.
Adults were chosen from Belgium rather than Scotland as the Belgian Chequered Skippers are found in a similar landscape to Rockingham Forest and share the same caterpillar foodplants, False Brome and Wood Small-reed.
The First Sighting of an English born Chequered Skipper
In spring 2019 we had our first sighting of an English born Chequered Skipper – the first in over 40 years. This was great news as it meant that the butterfly had managed to overwinter and complete its life cycle on the release site. To bolster the population and increase chances of them successfully establishing, we released additional butterflies from Belgium onto the same release site.
In August 2019 we also located our first Chequered Skipper larvae – quite a feat considering the amount of habitat available! We found a further five larvae over the next few weeks which was a positive indication that the habitat was suitable and they were doing well.
Whilst we had lower numbers of sightings in 2020 and 2021 (around 60 each year), the area of habit the butterfly is found in has increased which is encouraging. In 2019 this was approx. 65ha, but by 2021 this had increased to 86ha.
Reintroducing a species is not a quick fix and the challenge we now face is to make sure that woodland management across the landscape can continue to provide the habitats the Chequered Skipper needs to thrive into the future. In 2021 we came to the end of the four-year project that was part of the Back from the Brink collaboration and funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund. However, with support from the Government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund and Butterfly Conservation supporters, we have moved onto a second phase of work through the Chequered Skippers-Taking Flight project, which runs until March 2023.
The Critical Second Phase of the Project
This critical second phase will allow us to build on the work initiated in the Back from the Brink project and extend habitat improvements, so we can sustain and expand on the initial breeding success of Chequered Skipper. We are also hoping to be able to get Chequered Skipper populations established in additional sites across the woodlands here in Rockingham, which will help ensure the long-term sustainability of this species in England.
The Chequered Skipper-Taking Flight project will include work on additional threatened species that occur in this area, including Dingy Skipper, Grizzled Skipper and Adder. We learnt the benefits of undertaking cross-taxa working during the Back from the Brink project and Adder can benefit significantly from the management work we will be undertaking for Skipper species.
We will be working across a number of sites in Rockingham Forest, carrying out habitat management work, working with our landowner partners Forestry England, Natural England, Langdyke Countryside Trust, Northants County Council and BCN Wildlife Trust. Ride widening and management are planned to benefit the Chequered Skipper (and other Skipper species), whilst scrub removal, bare ground creation, seeding and plug planting will support Dingy and Grizzled Skippers, and creation & maintenance of clearings will target Adder within the same landscape.
The funding will also allow us to take on two seasonal rangers in 2022, who will help deliver and support a programme of training workshops, engagement events and surveys. These activities will help connect people with nature, nurturing appreciation and understanding of Chequered Skipper and Rockingham’s other threatened species, and allow us to build on our existing skilled network of volunteers.
- Information on Fineshade Wood can be found here.
- Information on the Chequered Skipper species can be found here.
- A handy leaflet about the Chequered Skipper at Fineshade Wood can be downloaded here.
If you are visiting the Fineshade Wood to see Chequered Skipper, please:
- Please remain on hard, surfaced tracks and avoid disturbing the butterflies as this can cause disruption to their breeding process.
- This is a working woodland and forestry operations may be taking place so please observe and follow any signage.
- Be considerate of other visitors as this is a multi-use site with walkers, horse-riders and cyclists.
- They are fast, low-flying butterflies so are very difficult to spot. They occur in low numbers and are sparsely distributed, so please don't be disappointed if you have no success in seeing one - there is plenty of other fantastic wildlife on site.
- Please be aware this is an active research site - as well as our band of dedicated volunteers monitoring the butterflies, BC and scientific colleagues are studying the butterfly and the habitat here, and you may see butterflies that have been marked for tracking studies. Follow on-site guidance and be aware that you may see staff and volunteers in restricted areas that are not open to the public.