Large copper butterfly (Lycaena dispar)

SizeWingspan: 38 mm
Body length: 15 mm

The large copper butterfly is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The large copper butterfly (Lycaena dispar) has wings of a bright coppery-orange, fringed with black. The undersides are silvery-blue with black spots. Some specimens have several black spots on the upper wing. The caterpillars are green.

Once widespread on the fens of East Anglia, particularly in Cambridgeshire, the large copper butterfly was declared extinct in Britain in 1851. Elsewhere, it is distributed over a large area of Europe, reaching into Asia. There are three recognised subspecies, the one most closely related to the extinct British butterfly being found mainly in the Netherlands.

The large copper butterfly is found in open fenland habitats.

The large copper butterfly emerges in July and lays its eggs on the leaves of great water dock (Rumex hydrolapathum). The caterpillars feed until the end of September, on the undersides of the leaves; their feeding leaves a characteristic 'window' since the upper part of the leaf is not eaten. They then hibernate over the winter among the old leaves of the dock. They re-emerge in April and feed until June when they enter the pupation stage of their lives. Not a lot is known about the habits of the adult butterflies, but they may be able to disperse over several kilometres, perhaps as far as 20 kilometres.

The biggest cause of the extinction of the large copper butterfly in Britain was undoubtedly the draining of the East Anglian fens in the 18th and 19th centuries. As populations fell, collecting played a part in the disappearance of the butterfly, eliminating it from the few remaining sites.

Since its disappearance, a number of attempts have been made to re-introduce the large copper using the two subspecies. However, all so far have failed. In 1927, and again in 1955, another attempt began using the Dutch subspecies, at Woodwalton Fen in Cambridgeshire. The butterflies were kept and bred in a greenhouse and, periodically, specimens were released on to the fen. This project, too, has had little success at re-establishing the butterfly and the greenhouse at Woodwalton Fen has now been moved to Long Sutton Butterfly Park, with another station being set up at Stratford Butterfly Centre.

The large copper butterfly was added to the UK Biodiversity Action Plans (UKBAP), and is included in English Nature’s Species Recovery Programme (SRP). In 1993, studies on parts of the Norfolk Broads began, to ascertain whether suitable re-introduction sites could be found. This project is in partnership with the Dutch Authorities, and it is hoped that it will not be too long before this attractive insect is re-established in the UK.

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Information supplied by English Nature.

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2011)