Blog written by Nick Self, Conservation Lead for North Wiltshire

Welcome back to my feature, Month in the Meadow. So, that’s summer done, now let’s crack on with autumn. In this post we will have a look at the work that Wiltshire Wildlife Trust has been carrying out to conserve the marsh fritillary butterfly.

Braydon Forest Marsh Fritillary Project

The beautiful marsh fritillary butterfly was once found across the UK, but has suffered a catastrophic decline. North Wiltshire was one of its former strongholds in the 1990s, especially in the Braydon Forest, an area where a few colonies continue to hold on. A big factor in the decline of this iconic butterfly is the loss of suitable habitat.

marsh fritillary butterfly

Download our guide to the Marsh Fritillary butterfly

Critically, marsh fritillaries need devil's-bit scabious, a pretty, purple flowering plant often found in hay meadows. The butterfly needs this plant in order to lay its eggs and also as a food source for the caterpillars.

Regular cutting of meadows, even if they do contain devils-bit scabious, removes the food plant and destroys the larval webs.

Devils-bit scabious plant

Action for Insects Project

In 2021 we purchased 44 hectares of land next door to our Emmett Hill Meadows site. This land, in Upper Minety, will be managed specifically to cater for the marsh fritillary. This is a species that is found in small numbers on the hay meadow at Emmett Hill, so the increase in land will provide much more valuable habitat.

Another site that has a growing population of marsh fritillary is Echo Lodge Meadows near Brinkworth. As part of our Action for Insects project we have been carrying out a programme of works to improve and extend the marsh fritillary habitat at this site.

Brush Harvesting of Seed

We planned to take devil’s-bit scabious seed from the two diverse fields at Echo Lodge and then sow them on the bigger, less diverse field to create more suitable breeding habitat. Using a land rover towed machine, seed was brush harvested from Skinner’s Ground by the contractor, Cotswolds Glorious Grasslands, on 30th June. Then, to focus on devils-bit scabious for the marsh fritillary, a second, much later harvest, was taken from Ditch Field, on 8th August. The Wood Field receptor plot of about one hectare was topped and tine harrowed on 12th September. This was followed by hand seed sowing using volunteers.

We had a pretty good marsh fritillary season this year with over 30 adults recorded on one visit in May. This was followed by an awesome number of larval webs in Ditch Field. I’m really hopeful of a smashing season in 2023 and if we can get the adults to move to the newly created habitat that would be a fantastic result. Seven months before we find out, so let’s wait and see.

Brush harvestingMarsh fritillary larval web