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Extinct British Butterflies

cigarette cards

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Having just been updating the butterfly cigarette card sets on Franklyn Cards it was about time an article that has been in the back of my head for the last six years be written.

Not every butterfly on the cigarete cards exists anymore in the wild.  Indeed some did not exist when the cards were produced.

Firstly there would appear to be 59 species of butterly in Britian (the 59th was discovered in 1989 in Eire, the first new species of butterfly to be discovered in Britain in over 100 years).

There are 5 extinct species:

Large Chequered Skipper
 Heteropterus morpheus

Black-veined White
 Aporia crataegi

Mazarine Blue
 Polyommatus (Cyaniris) semiargus

Large Copper
 Lycaena dispar

Large Tortoiseshell
 Nymphalis polychloros


Of these 5 extinctions 4 appear in Wills, British Butterflies, 1927.

I was rather upset my beloved cigarette cards did not have details of the fifth species on the list

Large Chequered Skipper.

However a quick search revealed why it did not get a mention, it was first seen on Jersey in 1946.

Having lived in a small area in the north of the island for many years it now appears that due to its habitat being overgrown numbers declined and in all probability they are now extinct having not been sighted since 1996.

So that explains the reason they are not appearing on the butterfly cigarette cards, they were not known to exist in Britain before 1946.

So let us move onto the other butterflies.

Black-veined White


Black Veined White butterfly

Wills cigarette card Black Veined White butterfly

A beautiful butterfly ( maybe there is an ugly one) it seems to have become extinct in the 1920s.

An extact date is difficult for this.  However the text on the back of cigarette card #43 which deals with this wonderful butterfly says:  "...This fine insect is now extremely scarce in this country."

It also notes, as so often is the case, it was once abundant in Southern England, especially in the New Forest and Kent.

The reason for the extinction seems to be something of a mystery, especially as the New Forest is not somewhere that you expect wholesale habitat change.

However efforts to re-introduce the butterfly into Britain have failed despite many attempts at doing just that.

In an article in The Guardian (April 19th 2006) this butterfly was on a list of 4 insects which could be re-introduced but had a score of 2/10 on its chances of being succesful.


Mazarine Blue




Wills cigarette card Mazarine Blue butterfly
Appearing on cigarette card #9 of the Wills British Butterflies set.
The text accepts this butterfly is supposed to be extinct in Britian but it holds out some hope that it does exist in some remote area of the land.

It also notes a rather unfortunate variation on the collection instinct when it says the following:

"It disappeared in many districts in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Among those last captured were twelve near Cardiff in 1876, one in Surrey in 1881"

Of couse the mania for netting butterflies and killing them for collections is not likely to be the sole factor in an extinction, in fact very unlikely, but it does seem a shame that the last survivors may have been killed by this method.

The date now officially given for its extinction is 1904.

Large Copper.


Large Copper

Wills cigarette card Large copper butterfly
This butterfly appears on cigarette card #18 of Wills British Butterflies 1927.

The card concedes it is extinct at the time of printing the set.  Again it notes the capture of 5 of them in 1847 or 1848 in Holm Fen, Hunts.

The card explains the extinction due to the draining of its fen habitat.

Officially it seems the buttefly became extincty in 1864.

Several efforts have been made to re-introduce the species but all have failed.  There is some hope that it could be re-introduced in the Norfolk Broads, so fingers crossed that these trials will be succesful.

The unfortunate news is this species is under severe pressure in other countries in which it was once common.

Large Tortoiseshell



Wills cigarette card Large Tortoiseshell butterfly

Cigarette card #39 Wills British Butterflies 1927.

When the set was printed these butterflies were abundant, it was noted that some years it would be scarce and others appear in great numbers.

For example the card states the year 1893 was an abundant year but for the next 19 years it was scarcely seen.

Now though it seems likely to have become extinct in Britain sometime in the 1980s.

However there have been some recorded sightings which have been assumed to be released/escaped individuals or European migrants.

Perhaps all is not lost for this species but it seems the die has been cast.

And this is the good/bad ending.  Although these butterflies are extinct in Britian they are living in other areas of Europe and so have not been lost forever.

However the bad news is  the following:
There has been a loss of 97% of the flower rich grassland which support the bulk of our native butterflies.
In an article in The Times written in Jan. 1999 they painted the picture of several british butterfly species facing extinction.

Large Blue




Large blue Wills cigarette card
However, you will have noticed efforts have been, and are being made, to re-introduce these extinct species into Britain.  Of course this is fraught with all the difficulties associated with keeping something alive that has lost most of its natural habitat.

A great many people in Britain will remember the news reports around 1979 when the Large Blue became extinct.

The fascinating thing about the life cycle of these insects being the larvae needed to be carried off into ants nests where it could feed on the ant grubs.

It seemed it needed red ants and a particular species was important beyond any other.

It turns out that intensive farming destroyed a lot of these ant colonies and in others farming ceased and the area become so overgrown as to no longer be viable (oh what a delicate balance the world is in).

The ants need south facing slopes with very short grass (less than 2cm) otherwise the sun is shaded from the ants and they die.

Having discovered all this a re-introduction was made in 1983 and since that time the population has been growing steadily with numbers said to be in excess of 6,000.

Potentially that represents a population which is larger than at any time since the 1950's.

Lit appears on cigarette card #8 of Wills British Butterflies.
The text describes it as a rare butterfly in 1927 and being elusive enough to have only been discovered as a British native in 1795.

In the 1880's it was considered on the verge of extinction but a colony was found in Cornwall in 1891, the card notes that in recent years that colony has been declining in numbers rapidly.

So a good note to end on, a butterfly that has been on the verge of extinction almost as long as we have known it to exist is making a comeback.