Silver-spotted (but going for Gold)

17 August 2016 | Posted in SWT News , Michael Blencowe , Malling Down

At the moment I feel like the only person not interested in the Olympics. Personally, I can’t think of anything more boring than watching people jumping around and throwing stuff. So, instead of sitting in front of the TV, you'll find me crawling around on the South Downs watching a tiny butterfly racing around and fighting.

Silver-spotted skipper on the South Downs (photographed by Neil Hulme)

The silver-spotted skipper qualifies for all levels of the podium. Their wings are golden and bronze and the underside is spangled with shining silver panels. It’s one of our smallest butterflies and it gymnastically zips, twists and flips around the downland turf at incredible speeds. The males are vicious little blighters too. They defend a territory and will attack any other insect that dares wander into their arena.

And if there's one thing they love more than racing and fighting it's sunbathing. In Sussex you’ll find them on the hottest slopes of the Downs where they seek out their favourite hotspots – the bare ground created by grazing animals. This bare earth heats up and forms a microclimate much warmer than the surrounding grass - and to a tiny butterfly that’s the difference between Iceland and Ibiza.

These butterflies were doing fine way back when Britain hosted the Olympics in 1948 but high above their hot hoofprint havens the world began to shift. Changes in economics and agricultural policies took the sheep off the Downs and the cold shadows of tall grasses, brambles and thorns dominated.

With their habitat cooling the future looked dark for our sun-loving skipper and by the L.A Olympics of 1984 it was facing extinction in Britain. In Sussex it held on at a few colonies on the far eastern edge of the South Downs. But the world has started to change again; we’re getting hotter. As the global temperatures rise people and polar bears are panicking but this little butterfly is keeping its cool because now there were now more of those nice hot microclimates available to colonise.

Meanwhile conservation groups across the Downs had brought back grazing to conserve our precious chalk downland habitat. The stage is set for a Silver-spotted comeback! And here he comes! Passing Alfriston and Firle! Overtaking Lewes on the inside! Vaulting past Ditchling and Wolstonbury and, with a hop, skip and jump, he’s made it to Storrington! Re-conquering the downs - 42 miles in 28 years. Maybe by the 2036 Olympics he'll reach the finish line at the Sussex / Hampshire border. And if he does I hope I'll still be around to cheer him on.

A great place to watch the silver-spotted skipper (and avoid the Olympics) is Sussex Wildlife Trust's Malling Down reserve next to Lewes.

And I'll be looking for skippers - and other wildlife on a walk around Lewes this Friday.

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