Male Duke of Burgundy on territory
Female Duke of Burgundy
Cowslips growing in scrubby grassland at Oxenbourne Down
Caterpillar eating damage on a Cowslip leaf
Two Caterpillars in their 2nd instar on Cowslip
Female Duke of Burgundy at rest after egg-laying
The future of the Duke of Burgundy in Hampshire
The future of the Duke of Burgundy is still bleak in many of the counties in the UK where you can still locate this special butterfly. It is one of the fastest declining butterflies in the UK down by nearly 50% in the last 20 years. There are about 130 colonies still remaining in the UK, but most of these sites are very small and considered vulnerable. Despite the 'Dukes on the edge project' which Identified areas where the Duke needed help to halt it's decline by involving land managers and volunteers into conservation action, with scrub bashing.
Here in the County of Hampshire we are blessed with some of the biggest colonies in the country. Since I’ve been the Co-ordinator for the species the Duke of Burgundy has been lost from several sites and appeared at several new sites. I have strived to visit most of the sites throughout the season when it on the wing and have found several colonies where their habitat is now at a point that if no conservation work is done then the colony could quite easily disappear.
In the New Forest the Duke of Burgundy has now disappeared from it's last known colony, here most of the site was very small and isolated with open areas of Primroses, but looking at the area a few seasons ago the butterfly was very hard to find and transects in the area revealed very few individuals. The Botanical Gardens next door to the site has good areas of cowslips and the odd singleton was known to stray into this area. Its a fine line between Extinct and Extant, but the butterfly hasn't been reported from this site now for many years.
Oxenbourne Down is a satellite colony from Butser Hill, and a lot of management work has been carried out but it needs constant rotational cutting as the Gorse is prolific on top of the down. The colony is a very small and very vulnerable, best total at its peak flying time is about 12-15 individuals. However over the last couple of seasons I’ve espied singletons in several different locations at this site, so it is still mobile here. In 2020 a large area of tree felled downland produced egg-laying females in the middle of May, several caterpillars were seen in June, in their first and second instars. Good Cowslip re-generation is now coming through, and should help the Duke of Burgundy to re-colonise this part of the down.
In the North of the county which I’m not very familiar with there aren't many records coming from the Hants/Berks border or with Wiltshire in the Vernham Dean area. Although records do turn up sporadically, suggesting the butterfly is still surviving on some of the private estates. Also the butterfly is seen quite often in the Litchfield area around the A34(T) and was seen in the Beacon Hill and the Old Burghclere areas several years ago. This also goes for Harewood Forest, close to Andover, most of this site is privately owned, getting Duke records here has always been hard. In 2018 a recorder noted in his garden in a village very close to Harewood forest, that he had seen two Duke of Burgundies one male and one female. This may prove yet that there are other woods of Primrose and Hazel coppice just awaiting to be discovered.
Obviously the best known site in Hampshire is still Noar Hill, where the numbers are still good despite being lower than they were a decade ago. Butser Hill, where new satellite colonies are discovered almost every year, and in good years the site can have thousands of individuals, flying at its peak flying time. Good management and scrub cutting has ensured that numbers are also seen at Ramsdean Down, Little Butser Hill, and other satellite areas.
In the Winchester area we have lost several sites, several of these being woodland dependant, like Hampage Wood, the cessation of coppicing and the Primrose became too shaded. At Deacon Hill, a chalk downland site where it is just hanging on, the scrub is re-generating after being cut a few years ago. However concerted efforts by Hampshire Butterfly Conservation and Hampshire Wildlife trust in 2019 have enabled them to acquire this site and hopefully the small colony of Dukes should be safe, and with good management the species should be able to thrive.
The Hampshire Butterfly Conservation site at Magdellan Hill down is ear marked for an introduction in the near future, and some odd individuals have been seen close-by in 2018, so there may be more colonies waiting to be discovered in this area.
The butterfly is seen every year in small numbers in the Tytherley woods area on the border with Wiltshire. The best known site there is Bentley Wood where in the area known as the Eastern Clearing some patchy areas of Primrose grow in the gullies and ditches around the site. Here the Duke of Burgundy is seen in the later stages of it's flight period, as it's normally a later site where they emerge.
There was a medium sized colony on top of Dean Hill close to Bentley Wood but alas most of these butterflies are now seen on the Wiltshire side of the border, outside of the Industrial park. This site used to belong to the MOD where bunkers were covered in good patches of cowslip but counts of the Duke of Burgundy have been patchy over the past few years.
In the Stockbridge Area coppicing of the woodland there has meant the Duke is keeping its head above water, but its hold is very tenuous. It relies on the crop rotation of the Hazel plantations to avoid the Primroses becoming too shaded which is unsuitable for egg-laying females this also applies to the Pearl-Bordered Fritillary as well. The National Trust who own Stockbridge Down have coppiced good areas of Silver Birch and Hazel trees alongside the main road which helps the small colony of Dukes and Pearl Bordered Fritillaries, and they are also grazing areas close to Walbury Hill.
On the border with Wiltshire, the MOD ranges at Porton Down is one of the biggest woodland colonies in the country, particularly the area known as Isle of Wight Hill. A look at this site in 2015 recorded a colony of up to 80 individuals, and consequent visits have produced excellent counts. The Primrose abound in small pockets of woodland, which are systematically cropped for the species, so this colony is very stable. There is also a small colony on the downland Habitat where the species is seen almost every year. The Duke of Burgundy was originally a woodland species laying on primroses but over time it has become more of a chalk downland species.This has happened here on Porton Down, where some of the woodland becomes overgrown and the species re-establishes itself back onto the chalk and utilises the cowslips.
Also close by is an area known as Broughton Down, this site may well get an over-spill from Porton Down, and when Matthew Oates visited this site in 2014 looking for the Silver-Spotted Skipper he saw several Cowslip leaves with larval damage. This suggest's there is a small colony here, although again the site is not regularly visited, and I have received sporadic records over the past couple of decades.
Other sites I have visited are Old Winchester Hill where the Duke is seen regularly but in very small numbers, however this does suggest the colony is probably stable here. The species is often seen in small numbers in many different localities, where females have probably travelled fair distances to find suitable egg laying areas. On Beacon Hill Warnford there is probably only one small colony where they are usually seen on the transect route every season, all be it in twos and threes.
Not so far away from Beacon Hill there is a site known as Stephen’s Castle Down which was an unknown entity until a few seasons ago. This area could turn into a very important site, although it is very isolated, as a few years ago I saw up to (18) individuals, which is a conservative estimate as there were probably more. This colony was probably born out of a very adventurous female Duke of Burgundy flying across from Beacon Hill and there was larval damage on several Cowslip leaves in the 2014 season. The site faces south-east and is surrounded by farmland, particularly sheep grazing on the lower slopes with scrubby banks facing east where the Cowslips are very numerous.
Who knows there may well be more Stephen Castle Downs to be discovered in the future?
Coulters Dean was a small colony in the eastern part of the Queen Elizabeth Country Park Complex, however I haven't seen any Dukes there for many years and I feel it maybe too far away from any viable colony to recolonize naturally; the nearest colony would be at Butser Hill or Harting Down, in Sussex, where they have re-introduced it and carried out scrub bashing to keep the butterfly in good shape for the future.
Another site worth a mentioning is Martin Down where there were several individuals seen by David Green on a survey there in 2008, also other individuals were seen there a few years ago and Cowslip damage was found on a leaf. So there could be a very small colony surviving there, as there is certainly a lot of suitable habitat. In 2020 several individuals were reported, and were quite well spaced out, which requires investigation in 2021.
On the Isle of Wight the species has long become extinct, unfortunately the isolation of the Island means the colonies were very vulnerable to dying out, and had no way or means of re-colonised from other sites. The species were previously seen at Apes Down Totland Bay, Parkhurst Forest, Cranmore, Freshwater, Carisbrooke and Whippingham, most of these colonies were very small and exposed to the elements. The last Duke of Burgundies were seen at Monkham and Rowridge Copses in the early 2000’s.
Ashley Whitlock December 2020
Duke of Burgundy Co-ordinator for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight