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Collector found guilty of capturing and killing UK's rarest butterfly

A collector has been convicted of capturing, killing and possessing specimens of Britain's rarest butterfly - the Large Blue.

Philip Cullen, 57, scrambled over locked gates and used a child's net to capture the globally endangered butterflies at two protected sites.

He was seen chasing and swiping his net at a Large Blue (Maculinea arion) before leaving the Daneway Banks in Gloucestershire with a plastic bag of glass jars.

The following day, volunteers at the Collard Hill site in Somerset challenged Cullen after seeing him with the small net.

Police later raided his home in Cadbury Heath, Bristol, and found a large number of dead and mounted butterflies - including Large Blues.

Cullen had labelled two of the butterflies - which he claimed were from France - "DB" and "CH", the initials of the two sites where he had been seen.

Magistrates convicted Cullen of six charges against him, relating to him killing, capturing and possessing the Large Blue butterflies.

The butterflies, which were reintroduced to the UK after becoming extinct in the 1970s, are protected under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010.

Chair of the bench Colin Howells told Cullen: "We are considering a custodial sentence so we will be asking for a pre-sentence report."

Prosecuting, Kevin Withey said: "It is a unique case, there has never been a prosecution in terms of capturing and killing in the past."

Large Blues became extinct in about 1979 and were reintroduced, including to Collard Hill and Daneway Banks, in the 1980s.

Neil Hulme, of the Butterfly Conservation charity, saw Cullen climbing over a locked gate into Daneway Banks on June 18.

He watched Cullen chase a Large Blue with a net for up to 20 metres and later reported him to superiors at the charity.

Mr Hulme described the people who collect Large Blue butterflies as "a small hardcore of people".

"It is not something which is widespread but the people involved are usually quite determined in their efforts," he added.

Bristol Magistrates' Court heard that it would be "very easy" to catch one of the butterflies in Cullen's small net, due to their slow flight pattern.

Mark Greaves, a volunteer for the charity, said there was a secondary market for Large Blue butterflies mocked up to look like "old Victorian species".

These can fetch between £200 and £300 each.

A warrant was executed at Cullen's home in February 2016 and officers found a large number of butterflies, including the two Large Blues.

Geoffrey Martin, of the Natural History Museum, said there were up to 30 trays of butterflies and moths at Cullen's home.

Cullen claimed the DB and CH labels related to the butterflies' colouring, "dark blue" and "cobalt hue".

The number 18 next to the letters related to the wingspan of the butterflies when landing and not the date he captured them, he insisted.

But Mr Martin told magistrates that he had never seen specimens labelled in such a way in the 11 million or so butterflies he had viewed.

Investigators traced an eBay account with the username biker205 to Cullen.

In police interview, he admitted selling butterflies at auction but claimed he bought the majority of his specimens from farms in Europe.

The Large Blue is the largest and rarest of blue butterflies and has a row of black spots on its upper forewing.

It spends most of the year within the nests of red ants, where the larvae feed on ant grubs.

The globally-endangered species has always been rare in Britain but became extinct in 1979.

In 2004, it occurred on nine sites in the country, following a major conservation programme.

Cullen, who previously admitted possessing other protected species of butterfly, will be sentenced on April 7.

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