No shrinking violets! Conservation charity aims to create purple patch with mass planting of 20,000 violets to satisfy particular tastes of rare butterfly

Across the Shropshire Hills this spring, the National Trust and many dedicated volunteers will start the mass planting of 20,000 marsh violets, the largest planting of its kind in the UK.

These delicate little plants are the favourite food of caterpillars of small pearl-bordered fritillary butterflies, and by planting more, it’s hoped to attract many more of these rare butterflies.

Led by the National Trust, and funded by the Natural England Species Recovery Programme, this ambitious planting is part of the Stepping Stones Project to restore habitat connectivity across the whole landscape and create a sustainable home for not only small pearl-bordered fritillary butterflies but also willow tits, hazel dormice and otters. The National Trust is working closely with Shropshire Wildlife Trust, Natural England and the Shropshire Hills National Landscape Partnership, along with various landowners.

To give these butterflies a helping hand, volunteers are planting out the first ‘clumps’ of marsh violets this spring, with the rest to follow in the autumn. Approximately 50 plug plants are being planted together in 1x1m squares, creating 400 separate areas for the violets to thrive.

The selected sites are close to where small pearl-bordered fritillaries have already been spotted, but where there are currently too few violets for the caterpillars to feed upon. In these wetter areas of the Shropshire Hills, it’s hoped by seriously ramping up the numbers of marsh violets for caterpillars of small pearl-bordered fritillaries, and improving the rush pasture for the adult butterflies, their future will be secured.

To prepare for the planting, last year the locations of existing wild marsh violet populations were surveyed with expert advice from local naturalists and guidance from Natural England. Cuttings were carefully taken and propagated at a local wildflower seed and plant nursery.

Sourcing locally and then planting locally is key, with everything done within a 20-mile radius. Last winter volunteers also helped cut back rushes and bracken to open up these wetland areas and make space for the new arrivals.

Charlie Bell, Stepping Stones Project Manager for the National Trust said: “Marsh violet propagation and planting of this scale and ambition has never been attempted in the UK before. We are hugely grateful to our volunteers who are so enthusiastically taking up the challenge to not only help in the mass planting but also with future surveys to track the success of the work.

“The pearl-bordered fritillary is one of the four species we’re particularly focused on helping through our Stepping Stones species recovery project. Each species is special and needs our help to ensure their long-term survival in the local area. The landscape-scale restoration work here will also help these and other species to thrive.”

Karen Shelley-Jones, Species Recovery Programme Manager at Natural England, said: “Our precious wildlife faces a range of environmental pressures such as habitat fragmentation and climate change with once common species having all but disappeared from England.

“Support for this project from Natural England will not only help to protect these fascinating butterflies for future generations to enjoy, but will also create a bigger, better and more joined up landscape to accelerate species recovery.”

Caroline Uff, Ecological Consultant to the National Trust, said: “Currently, these striking butterflies are hanging on in fragmented colonies. Through this new mass planting and habitat restoration the plan is to give these butterflies the space to move and flourish. New areas could start to re-colonise within a couple of years.

“But this project is not just about one butterfly – it will also create habitats for many increasingly uncommon species such as snipe, curlew and devil’s bit scabious.”

Ben McCarthy, Head of Nature and Restoration Ecology at the National Trust said: “Targeted interventions such as these can make a huge difference in reversing the decline to our once charismatic wildlife. The delicate marsh violet and small pearl-bordered fritillary were once widespread and common, but have both suffered from land drainage and inappropriate management of our wetlands.

“This hugely ambitious project to propagate and enhance the local population of marsh violets will help rebuild richer eco-systems – with the flower being the critical food source for the caterpillar – that is core to tackling the nature crisis.

“By making our sites bigger, better and more connected we are making space for nature and restoring populations of other threatened species as well such as the willow tit which thrive in these wet and complex wet woodlands.”

In the wider Stepping Stones Species Recovery Project, each of the four species is receiving a real boost to aid their recovery.

The willow tit is the UK’s most threatened resident bird and its sharp decline is linked to the loss of wet woodland with plenty of rotten dead wood. Plans are in place to create wet woodland at the National Trust’s newly acquired Barns Farm along with more nesting logs with camera traps to monitor their behaviour.

A team of volunteer willow tit surveyors have also been trained up to monitor the wider project area, and local landowners will be offered the opportunity to find out how to meet the willow tits needs into the future.

The hazel dormouse has sadly declined by 51% since 2000. This is largely due to changes in the traditional forestry management of ancient woodland, and the loss of scrub and hedgerows. Over the next 12 months, the project aims to plant more than 5,000 metres of native hedgerow, with plenty of hazel. This will link up dormouse habitats, and help existing populations to increase and spread.

And the final animal that needs help is the otter. Within the 200 square-kilometre project area there are significant areas where otters haven’t been recorded. More surveys are planned, along with otter-friendly habitat restoration, including ready-made otter holts on three National Trust sites, all with camera traps to monitor use.

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