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Issue 19 - Go west and follow the skipper

Scotland Magazine Issue 19
March 2005


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Go west and follow the skipper

The chequered skipper butterfly is very rare. But your chances of seeing one improve in the Fort William area. Graham Holliday reports

The small chequered skipper butterfly is one of Britain’s rarer butterflies.

Numbers took a steep dive in the 1960s and the species finally became extinct from the damp woodlands of the English Midlands in 1975.

It was discovered in Scotland in 1942. This dark brown and yellow butterfly with a distinctive, darting flight pattern is now confined to western Scotland. Butterfly Conservation, a registered charity set up in 1968, has since discovered 50 colonies in the Fort William area and along the west coast.

One of those colonies can be found at Doire Donn, a Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve. Doire Donn is a small remnant of Scotland’s temperate rainforest situated five miles from Fort William at the north-western end of Loch Linnhe.

It forms part of the Coneglen Estate. It’s dominated by sessile oak, birch and an abundance of ash, alder, wych elm and Scots pine. The upper slopes are filled with the wet grassland and purple moor grass much favoured by the butterflies.

“The butterfly loves woodland edges on acid soils where the food of the caterpillars is found in the purple moor grass and where sunshine keeps the temperature up and where nectar plants for the adults are also present,” says Mark Foxwell, conservation manager at Doire Donn which is also home to the rare deadwood beetle.

The skipper, as it is commonly known, feeds predominantly on bugle, bluebells, orchids, and lousewort.

The caterpillar is slow to develop taking over 100 days and becomes mature during October. The chrysalis can be found in among tall grasses in early April. The species has to struggle against the Scottish weather especially when many of the summers are wet and too cold for the skippers to fly. In some years this has lasted most of their normal flight period during May and June.

“We monitor skippers in Doire Donn by walking a specific route through the reserve at regular intervals during the skipper flight period,” explains Foxwell.

“We’ve done this since 1993 and so have 11 years of records which tells us something of how the skipper population is doing. The highest number ever recorded was 60 in 1993, the lowest five in 2000 and in 2004 it was 48.” Conservationists believe the decline in numbers is to due to heavy grazing which removes the grasses and flowers the caterpillars and adults feed on.

“At Doire Donn we began a woodland regeneration project in 1997 by excluding deer and other grazing animals from degraded areas of the reserve,” adds Foxwell.

“The result has been the creation of new areas of woodland with plenty of grasses and flowering plants and a much increased woodland edge providing excellent habitat for skippers.”

The best time to go and view skippers at Doire Donn is from mid-May to mid-June.

Meanwhile, Butterfly Conservation is hoping to re-establish a population of skippers in a large woodland south of the border where traditional coppicing and ride management is practiced under an agreement between the Forestry Commission and English Nature.

Getting there:
Take the ferry across Loch Linnhe, then follow the A861 south along the shore for five miles. Take the Corran ferry from the A82 across Loch Linnhe and then follow the A861 north for a further eight miles. The reserve is signposted. Limited car parking is available at the northern entrance to the reserve. There is a footpath, although it is in poor condition, running the entire length of the reserve

More information:

Scottish Wildlife Trust

Butterfly Conservation

Where to stay:

The Smiddy House, Fort William offers luxury bed and breakfast accommodation in spacious, en-suite rooms each with individual design features. Russell’s Bistro occupies the ground floor. The Bistro is reputed for its regular themed nights and servings of both traditional Scottish dishes and Japanese and Malaysian food.

B&B from £35 per person per night.
Tel: +44 (0)1397 712 335

The Spean Bridge Hotel, Spean Bridge, Fort William is a two start hotel, originally a coaching inn dating from 1780. Located 10 miles north of Fort William. Rooms are spacious and en-suite. Bunkhouse accommodation is also available. The hotel has two restaurants. From £35-£94. Bunkhouse accommodation (bed only) is £13.50 per person per night. Meals from £2.95.
Tel: +44 (0)1397 712 250

The Inn at Ardgour, Fort William is a three star hotel and faces the west shore of the Corran Narrows where the Corran ferry crosses Loch Linnhe with views from Ben Nevis in the north to the mountains of Appin in the south. The But n’ Ben restaurant was converted from old ferrymen’s cottages. Scottish fayre is served with locally grown produce when possible and there is a selection of wines, real ales and malt whiskies. Rooms are en-suite. Three nights bed and breakfast for £80.00 per person.
Tel: +44 (0)1855 841 225

What to do:

Fishing Scotland School of Fly Fishing provides wild brown trout, wild Atlantic salmon and northern pike, private learn to fly fish instruction and guided/coaching fly fishing excursions for experienced anglers. From £105 for a four hour private lesson for one to £260 for a six hour private trout fishing excursion for six.
Tel: +44 (0)1397 712 812

Nevis Cycles has a wide range of bicycles for hire. From £13.50 including: full waterproof suit, rucksack, helmet, lock, toolkit and waterbottle.
Tel: +44 (0)1397 705 555

Alan Kimber runs west coast mountain guiding and instruction holidays offering a variety of winter and summer courses including navigation and safety weekends, scrambling and classic rock climbing.
Tel: +44 (0)1397 700 451

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