Sir David Attenborough has announced that a Butterfly Survival Zone is to be set up in Co Fermanagh in a bid to halt the decline of one of Europe’s most endangered species.
It was believed that the Marsh Fritillary still clung on in only eight breeding sites in Northern Ireland, but scientists have just discovered several huge hitherto-unknown colonies in the most westerly corner of Co Fermanagh.
Twenty new zones have been established across the UK by the charity Butterfly Conservation, of which the only one in Northern Ireland will be in the Fermanagh Grasslands.
There, conservationists will strive to re-establish habitats and encourage new colonies.
Natural history legend Sir David said he feared the UK is entering a “post-butterfly era”, as so much of the landscape has become a no-go areas for butterflies.
Butterfly Conservation plans to approach thousands of landowners in the next few years, urging them to use government grants to restore habitats on the land they farm within the 20 key landscapes. This approach has already proved successful in Dartmoor where the marsh fritillary is already making a comeback.
It was believed until recently that the marsh fritillary survived in only one breeding colony in Co Fermanagh, with the remainder in six Co Down sites and one in Co Antrim.
But since the discovery of a colony of thousands of Marsh Fritillaries on private land in west Fermanagh, more colonies have been found in grassland surveys carried out the Environment & Heritage Service, now known as Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
Maurice Hughes, NI senior regional officer with Butterfly Conservation, said: “We more or less by accident found a new colony in Co Fermanagh which turned out to be quite a huge colony. Then EHS were out doing grassland surveys and discovered a few more.”
The colonies persist near the village of Garrison in the most westerly part of the county and are thriving on rush pasture and purple moor grass habitats which are still being grazed in the traditional way. The Marsh Fritillary has undergone huge declines across Europe as a result of agricultural intensification and land drainage.
“The way they graze the cattle there is very suitable for the Marsh Fritillary and there is lots of their food plant — the devil’s bit scabious. We also expect to find more sites down there — it’s quite a remote area and a lot of this is farmland, so people aren’t walking in these areas to notice them,” Mr Hughes said.