Gardens

A matter of good breeding

Butterflies are beautiful but they are also crucial to the environment – which is why wealthy conservationists are creating wildflower gardens and butterfly houses. Sophy Roberts reports.

June 06 2010
Sophy Roberts

Clive Farrell is possibly Britain’s greatest living lepidopterist. At his home near Sherborne in Dorset he keeps three heated glasshouses for tropical butterflies on the wing. This is in addition to 100 acres of sensitively managed outdoor habitat comprising hay meadows, woodland, lakes and chalk banks where native butterflies live, breed and hibernate.

When I visit, there is still a light covering of frost on the ground outside, and linnets feeding noisily in the winter stubble. But inside, the butterfly house is warm, the constant 25°C by day maintained by radiators and fan heaters. The flora is dense – Egyptian starflowers, lantana and porterweed – with passion-flower vines reaching up to the roof. They and the butterflies seek the spring sun after the darker months of winter. The air is damp and still except for the gentle whir of the insects’ wings. One lands on my arm. It feels as if it might be drinking my sweat – a pretty, iridescent, small blue Heliconius erato cyrbia, or “longwing” butterfly, named for its elegant shape.

Hailing from the southern slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes, this species has been bred by Farrell in Dorset in a continuous, self-perpetuating colony for 17 years. The success rate has much to do with the way it eats, its tongue, when I look closely, loaded with yellow dust. Unlike other butterflies it doesn’t just feed off nectar but can turn pollen into a digestible, protein-rich soup. The species therefore lends itself to captive breeding because each specimen is able to survive up to six months.

Not all tropical butterflies are so fortunate. The Blue Morpho, for instance, lives for around 14 days. I observe it perched with closed wings; it is a dull brown marked with eyespots. As it takes flight, the uppersides reveal themselves to be a brilliant, shimmering blue, each wing the size of my palm. The Giant Atlas Moth, on the other hand, is lucky to live beyond a week. Only a few days ago, I’m told, a female Giant Atlas hatched and died without a mate, the male failing to appear from its chrysalis in time. A female butterfly in the wild might lay between 100 and 400 eggs, depending on the species, yet only half get to be caterpillars, 20 to be pupae, leaving just a couple to survive to a reproductive state. Then, with a light thud, one falls to the ground beside my feet – probably killed by a spider.

The biological control for this predator is a ground-dwelling Chinese painted quail used to maintain the perfect, fragile eco-system where not only the butterflies’ lives are precarious, but also the plant systems on which they rely. This is the most complicated part of butterfly houses. The food plants used to nourish caterpillars are hard to buy from English garden centres. In addition, each butterfly species requires a specific plant species on which to feed. Worse still, the flowers of the rare bright orange Tsiguria vines, for instance, last just a single day.

“It’s why horticulturists generally make better butterfly breeders than entomologists,” says Farrell, who relies heavily on his head gardener, Falkland Little, to keep on top of the timing. If the caterpillars are eating, he has to be one step ahead, with constant seedlings of additional food plants. When the pupae hatch, nectar has to be available too. In rare cases of nectar-plant famine, Farrell resorts to golf tees, their tiny bowls filled with sugar water to supplement the insects’ complex diet.

Is it all worth it? “I’ve only ever valued butterflies as living creatures, not as dead things,” says Farrell, who would no sooner pin a specimen to his wall than he would question his heating bills. “In Victorian times they were perhaps plentiful enough to catch and kill. Not any more. Butterflies are like canaries in the coalmine – sensitive indicators of the health of our environment. To walk among them is a privilege.”

It is an odd concept, to keep a house of tropical butterflies in a Dorset garden, but to Farrell it represents the rainforest microcosm of the larger vision he has been working on since he raised native caterpillars as a boy in a garden shed in London’s Barons Court. Now 63, he consults on tropical butterfly houses all over the world, from stately homes to state-owned museums. He has created displays in Florida, and sent pupae as far afield as Russia. He is working on a butterfly house for a new five-star hotel, The Yeatman, in Portugal. He co-owns a butterfly farm in Belize and supports numerous other micro-finance initiatives in the rearing of tropical butterflies in Thailand, Costa Rica and the Philippines, among others (the closer to the equator, the greater the density and diversity of species). “We help farmers get started, giving them money to build enclosures, and providing them with a market,” Farrell explains. “This gives employment to local people. More importantly, it gives them reason to preserve their natural butterfly habitats.”

To facilitate all this, Farrell is a shareholder in the UK’s leading live butterfly import-export business. The Stratford-upon-Avon Butterfly Farm collaborates with around 50 breeders, importing more than 1m tropical pupae in 2009. In 2010, John Calvert, the company’s MD and Farrell’s long-time friend and business partner, expects those numbers to increase by more than 10 per cent.

Many of these pupae are used in living public displays on which Farrell consults. These included last summer’s butterfly house at the Natural History Museum. In 1981, he created the public butterfly house at Syon Park, and in autumn 2011 work is due to finish on a massive biome – 100m in diameter – filled with 10,000 tropical butterflies, hummingbirds and other creatures. Called Butterfly World, the entire £25m build (Farrell is still raising the final £14m) will be the largest such tropical butterfly display of its kind, comprising a living undercover rainforest near St Albans, just off the M25. Farrell’s personal investment has been considerable.

The first two phases are already open, including 27 acres of wildflower meadows, gardens and lake (opened last year) and a “taster” butterfly house with more than 600 butterflies of about 25 species over the season. Last April the second phase opened with the addition of a tropical-butterfly breeding house and insect study centre. In all of this Farrell works closely with the British butterfly expert Andrew George and landscape gardener Ivan Hicks.

When I ask about his motivations, Farrell says simply, “I don’t think any of us dream as much as we should.”

He had a highly successful career in property – relevant when you see how much his entomological endeavours cost – but it is also entirely obvious that his butterfly work isn’t just the idle fancy of an English eccentric. Butterfly World intends to be as commercially viable as any other major tourist attraction. “Ultimately, conservation has to pay,” he insists. But he also has an educator’s instinct, his public butterfly work dovetailing with a desire to communicate the impact of our ecological plunder. “I like to think of tropical butterflies as messengers from the rainforest. Here in the UK, our situation isn’t much different. Older generations will remember clouds of butterflies in the meadows of their youth. If we get the habitats right, butterflies will return.”

Farrell hopes that Butterfly World might inspire more people to share his point of view by proving that in one of the worst-polluted, intensively farmed and developed regions of Hertfordshire, within yards of an eight-lane motorway, native butterflies and wildflowers can thrive. He realises that not everyone can afford to convert a grand Victorian glasshouse into a garden folly for Andean longwings, even if this interest is on the rise; nor do we all enjoy rural existences where we can nurture butterfly-friendly hay meadows on our doorstep. But to create greater awareness of what we’re losing, especially among children, is the start of change. “A garden is not a garden without that addition of insects – of butterflies,” Farrell insists. Many of us, however, still use insecticides to keep our roses looking perfect. We don’t stop to think about butterflies and what their absence might mean.

The commercial trade in butterflies isn’t new. In 1894 the Newman family started a farm for native butterflies in Old Bexley, Kent, where they’d wrap the caterpillar food plants in muslin sleeves to confine the pupae. Most orders, however, were for dead butterflies to pin, adding to the great collections such as that of Lord Rothschild of Tring. Occasional orders for live butterflies came in, all for native species. They included requests from insecticide companies wanting to test new products, or film studios needing butterflies for a particular scene.

The Newmans stocked the insect house at London Zoo – the first outdoor cage of its kind to showcase living butterflies – with specimens collected at night and sent up to London by train. In 1949 the British Zoological Society opened a tropical house, followed soon after by an exhibition on London’s South Bank, which required 100 parcels a day. But otherwise, the private keepers of live butterflies were rich, high profile, and few and far between. One was Winston Churchill. At Chartwell he converted a summerhouse, purchased pupae from the Newmans, and released them once hatched. He also tried to establish colonies in his garden of Black-veined Whites and Swallowtails. When this didn’t work, he purchased live Small Tortoiseshells and Peacocks to liberate the day before a garden party – a decorative talking point not lost on the new generation of live-butterfly keepers in 2010.

Adrian Bridge and his wife Natasha are the current generation running the 318-year-old family-owned Fladgate Partnership, owners of Taylors, Fonseca and Croft ports, based in Oporto, Portugal. With close to 1,000 hectares of vineyards in the Douro Valley, they have a long-standing interest in ecological sustainability. Which is why, when Bridge met Farrell, he saw the potential for collaborating on a butterfly house at the family’s new luxury hotel, The Yeatman, opening in July (the butterfly house opens 2011) on the south bank of the River Douro, with views over Oporto’s historic centre.

“We are farmers,” Bridge says. “We have to care about our environment. This is what connects us to our butterfly house. We want to open people’s eyes to the green aspects of our existence. We’re also bringing in an olive tree which is between 1,000 and 1,300 years old. These are all things that make us stop and think about the time span we have relative to nature.”

The Yeatman’s butterfly house will comprise a Georgian-style orangery with two glass flanks and a central dome to be used as a reception. Each side will be kept at a different temperature to raise different species. The breeds will be selected by Farrell, who is also advising on food and nectar plants for the caterpillars and butterflies. “It’s exciting,” Bridge says. “To see a butterfly in a glasshouse in the middle of a city will be a lot of fun.”

To establish a butterfly house requires a substantial commitment. “It beats keeping tropical fish, and you know how much money people lavish on that,” Farrell remarks. Start-up costs are in the region of £15,000 to £20,000 to establish the basic glasshouse environment and plants. The main ongoing cost is heating. This can be achieved by extending the domestic heating system into a conservatory, or with heat pumps. The space also needs the correct light intensity and high humidity sustained with daily hosing or auto-misters. And vents need to be meshed to avoid butterflies escaping.

Other than that, it’s a question of patience and, if you haven’t the time, the employment of a gardener. To establish the food and nectar plants takes about six months. You also need an emergence box, at least 30cm square, made from tight mesh to keep out parasites. The box requires furnishing with canes from which pupae are hung; this is done in such a way that, when the butterfly hatches, it is able to hang freely to let its wings dry. Only then can the butterfly be released into the main glasshouse – roughly one butterfly per square metre, ideally into a space no smaller than 20sq m, says Calvert. Then it’s a case of feeding and checking for larvae to begin the cycle over again. Or, if it’s a non-perpetuating colony, you need to make another order – the wriggling pupae, many of which look like scrunched-up leaves, arriving wrapped in deep beds of cotton wool.

The butterflies are available from specialist livestock suppliers, of which there are a handful in the UK, in Holland, France, the US and Canada. All are only allowed to import species common to their country of origin; rare species cannot be imported without a CITES permit. Some pupae are sensitive to air travel, others have too short a pupae stage to make it in time. Still others are migratory, so unsuitable for a glasshouse. That said, the full range of pupae available is wide-ranging – 200 species in the 2010 Stratford catalogue – each chrysalis costing from about 50p to £5 a piece. According to Calvert, about 90 per cent should emerge successfully.

While most live-butterfly houses remain zoo-registered establishments, interest among private breeders is growing. I visited one such project owned by a wealthy lady who enjoyed not just the insects but the heat of the butterfly house. But the work involved is the reality people have to take on board, reminds Farrell, who recently advised a client on how to convert her grand conservatory (she’s deliberating on giving up her floral displays for the sake of caterpillar food plants).

If a full house is too great a commitment, enthusiasts can turn over swathes of their gardens to wildflowers to attract native species. “You cannot separate the two: butterflies and wildflowers go together,” Pam Lewis explains. An author and wildflower meadow consultant, Lewis advises on how best to prepare and manage land. Her recommendations, also detailed in her seminal book Making Wildflower Meadows (Frances Lincoln, £16.99), range from radical scrapes, which reveal the wildflower-friendly subsoil, to long-term management plans aimed at reducing invasive weeds. These bully out butterfly-friendly plants such as horseshoe vetch, yellow rattle and bird’s-foot trefoil.

“We have wrecked 97 per cent of our wildflower meadows since the war – ploughing, fertilising, spraying and mismanaging,” she says. “At the time, I suppose we took the habitats for granted. It’s only when we lose something that we seem to realise what we had before.” Lewis is currently working on a 1,000-acre project at a private estate in Wiltshire, one of the largest endeavours of its kind. “There are ways of making short cuts to get some quick glamour but, in the end, it’s about vigilance and commitment,” she explains.

As the British spend on gardens is rising exponentially, perhaps it is time we invest in the fauna – in a garden alive with butterflies, feeding from hanging baskets, old boots or buddleia walks – or, for those with staff, creating a tropical butterfly house. The aesthetic pleasures are manifold. And on top of that, there’s the satisfaction that comes with commitment to a cause when butterflies and the habitats they depend upon are in such serious peril all over the world.