The black-veined white butterfly, a large and striking species that was once a favorite of Winston Churchill, has been seen again in Britain after nearly a century of absence.
The butterfly, which has black veins on its white wings and likes to feed on hawthorn and blackthorn trees, was declared extinct in Britain in 1925, after a period of climatic unsuitability and habitat loss. It was much loved by the former prime minister and butterfly enthusiast, who tried to release hundreds of them in his Chartwell home in Kent in the mid-1940s, but failed.
“The Black-veined White is one of the most beautiful of our butterflies, and its flight is graceful and erratic,” Churchill wrote in his book Painting as a Pastime.
In June 2023, a BBC reporter and other naturalists spotted small numbers of black-veined whites flying in fields and hedgerows in south-east London. The sightings have caused excitement and curiosity among butterfly lovers and conservationists.
“Blink and you could miss them – but mysterious sightings of an extremely rare butterfly have set the hearts of enthusiasts fluttering,” Frank Gardner, the BBC security correspondent who first reported the sightings, wrote.
The Butterfly Conservation charity said that the black-veined white butterflies were probably released by someone, but they don’t know who or why. They said that the sightings do not mean that the species has recovered naturally or that it can survive the changing climate and extreme weather events.
“According to experts, it is likely that the black-veined white butterflies were intentionally released. However, the reasons behind these releases and the responsible parties remain unknown,” GKToday, an online news portal, reported.
However, studies have shown that the average climate conditions in Britain may be suitable for the black-veined white butterfly again, especially in the warmer parts of southern and eastern England. The studies also suggested that the butterfly’s habitat requirements can be recreated easily by creating field margins rich in nectar sources and allowing some scrub regeneration beside hedgerows.
“Our study found that the butterfly has a strong preference for small isolated bushes of Blackthorn and Hawthorn as egg-laying sites, with abundant nectar sources such as Red Clover nearby,” Fabrizia Ratto, from the University of Southampton, who conducted one of the studies on behalf of Butterfly Conservation, said.
“We have so few butterflies in the UK, the return of one of Europe’s most spectacular species would be a major boost for everyone who loves butterflies,” Professor Tom Brereton, Associate Director of Monitoring at Butterfly Conservation, who supervised the research, said.
The black-veined white butterfly is widespread and common across Europe and Asia. It is not usually present in the British Isles or northern Scandinavia. It was first listed as a British species during the reign of King Charles II. It is one of the largest butterflies in Europe, with a wingspan of up to 7 centimeters. It has two generations per year and flies from May to August. It is protected by law in some countries.
– ‘Extinct’ butterfly species reappears in UK, BBC News, 6/4/2023
– Black-veined White Butterfly, GKToday, 6/5/2023
– Black-veined White to return?, BirdGuides, 6/7/2023
– Churchill’s favourite butterfly to return, Phys.org, 6/10/2023