A Friend of the Fens: The Large Copper Butterfly

Large Copper Butterflies
Large Copper Butterflies
Matt Hayes, Research Assistant on the Jenyns project, writes:

As we gear up for the reopening of the Museum, we thought it would be a good time to give you a sneak peek behind the scenes. There is a huge amount to be seen at the museum but not all of our extensive collections can be put on display. Some of our stored material includes the millions of specimens held in our insect room, many of which were collected from around Cambridgeshire almost 200 years ago by the likes of Darwin and his contemporaries. These give us an important glimpse into the past and offer us insight into just how much our local area has changed.

For the species we want to talk to you about today, the large copper butterfly, this is particularly relevant as it is now extinct in this country and one of the last recordings of the species in the UK comes from Cambridgeshire; at Bottisham Fen in 1851.  Sadly, the British population of the large copper can now only be seen in museum collections like the ones stored here at the Museum. However, by looking back at what we have lost we have the opportunity to better understand the causes of past declines and protect other species into the future.

The large copper butterfly used to range across the wetlands of south east England but leading up to its extinction, numbers had been falling for some time. Huge areas of fenland had been progressively drained in order to clear land for agriculture and with the loss of this habitat the species that relied on it had also began to disappear. When wind powered drains were replaced by sophisticated steam pumps, even previously inaccessible areas were now under threat of drainage. Leading up to 1851, this resulted in the loss of the few remaining large fenlands in Cambridgeshire and meant that the large copper butterfly could no longer be supported. Fortunately, not all fenland species suffered the same fate and despite being lost locally, the beautiful swallowtail butterfly was able to hold on in the surviving wetlands of the Norfolk Broads. With hard work and a little luck, it will hopefully be possible to draw these charismatic species back to Cambridge in the future.

Swallowtail Butterflies
Swallowtail Butterflies

Using the knowledge gained from our past mistakes, extensive efforts have now been undertaken to manage and restore areas of Cambridgeshire’s fenland.  As part of The Great Fen Project a vast landscape has been reflooded and with time, swallowtails may be able to recolonise these areas. If enough fenland can be reclaimed, it may even be possible to reintroduce the large copper from populations abroad. Let us hope that our museum specimens will soon be re-joined by their free flying relatives.

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