Page last updated at 12:28 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

Butterflies offer winter escape

By Rachel Grant
BBC News, Surrey

A butterfly emerges from its chrysalis at RSH Wisley
Thousands of butterflies are being hatched in Wisley's Glasshouse

On a cold, gloomy January day stepping into a tropical garden filled with exotic butterflies is a world apart.

And judging by the visitors to the Royal Horticultural Society's garden at Wisley in Surrey, its first butterfly exhibition is a welcome change.

During the attraction's first two days last weekend, Wisley welcomed more than 8,000 people to the Glasshouse.

Up to 3,500 butterflies will emerge from pupae over a month to demonstrate an important conservation message.

Officially opened by the Queen in June 2007, the 7.7m glasshouse was built to mark the centenary of the gardens.

'New audience'

The idea of introducing butterflies began to develop last September and with the support of the Stratford Butterfly Farm, Wisley began releasing a variety of exotic species shortly after Christmas.

The new inhabitants include the apparently watchful Owl Butterflies, natives of Central America, the see-through Glasswing from Central and South America, and the vibrant red and black Postman Butterfly from Central America.

The butterflies, which have a lifespan of two to four weeks after hatching, can only live in the glasshouse during the winter when the ventilation windows are kept closed.

It's such an uplifting experience, especially when the news is so full of gloom
James Rudoni, head of Wisley

But organisers hope they will help increase the number of visitors to the site during the quiet winter months.

James Rudoni, head of Wisley, said: "We hope that this exhibition is going to bring in a new audience for us that will not only enjoy the glasshouse and the butterflies but the rest of the site too.

"As a charity it's a really good way to increase the interest in what we do without a great deal of investment. It's very cost effective."

Mr Rudoni, whose previous job involved creating exhibitions for London's Science Museum, said he had never set up an event that had got complete strangers talking to each other so much.

"It's remarkable," he said. "The butterflies give a focus and spark something in people.

"It's such an uplifting experience, especially when the news is so full of gloom."

Families at Wisley
The butterflies have attracted many more people to the gardens

Highlights during the Butterflies in the Glasshouse event, which finishes on 22 February, include a Valentines dinner and free school visits.

Tony Hoare, a volunteer for the charity Butterfly Conservation, has been sharing his expertise with visitors.

He said butterflies and moths were endangered by loss of habitats around the world, but were ecologically important because they are "half way up the food chain".

Natural order

Their caterpillars provide many species of animals with food, and they are important pollinators like bees, without which food production would grind to a halt.

The retired banker, whose passion grew from a childhood interest in butterflies, added: "Particularly when you feel the purse strings strangled it's important to appreciate the natural world.

"It's very important to have these sort of events," Mr Hoare added.

Owl Butterfly at RSH Wisley
Staff hope visitors will encourage native butterflies to their own gardens

"A lot of people, particularly people from towns, don't really know how the natural world works. They don't understand the importance of the natural order to their life."

Staff at Wisley, which has about 850,000 visitors a year, hope they will encourage people to attract native butterflies to their own gardens by making them more aware of how important the insects are.

Susie Milbank, from West Sussex, who was visiting Wisley especially to see the butterflies, said she was already an enthusiast.

"It is a fabulous way to raise people's awareness of the ecology of butterflies and their lifecycle and to show people how beautiful they are," she said.

"They are like flying flowers."

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