Page last updated at 04:18 GMT, Thursday, 25 September 2008 05:18 UK

Growing hopes for small butterfly

Small tortoiseshell butterfly
The critical time for the small tortoiseshell will be next spring

Fresh hopes have been raised for the future of a butterfly species which has seen its numbers rapidly declining in southern Britain.

The charity Butterfly Conservation was worried that small tortoiseshells were a dying breed after many fell victim to a parasitic fly.

But hundreds have been spotted around the country following a late summer influx from mainland Europe.

It is thought the better weather helped the butterflies cross the Channel.

Butterfly Conservation says the once-common small tortoiseshell has become an increasingly rare sight in southern Britain over the past five years.

Sudden influx

But hundreds of the insects were spotted on the east coast in August and September and many more inland in the central and southern counties in the first half of September.

Large numbers were also reported in gardens in Dorset a fortnight ago.

The organisation's chief executive, Dr Martin Warren, said: "I was thrilled when my own garden suddenly became alive with small tortoiseshells.

"There were more than 20 jostling for position on just one patch of sedum."

The small tortoiseshell was previously reported to be in decline

It was feared the small tortoiseshells - which are recognisable by their bright orange and black wings with white spots on the tips - were being killed off by the parasitic sturmia bella fly.

It lays its egg on nettles which are then eaten by caterpillars feeding on the plants.

The eggs hatch and develop inside the caterpillars, eating them from inside before bursting out of the cocoon.

The small tortoiseshell is one of a handful of butterflies which hibernate, and the critical time for the new arrivals will be next spring when they emerge from hibernation to breed.

Dr Warren said: "It is very unusual to get such a boost this late in the season when species like the small tortoiseshells are normally going into hibernation.

"Now it's fingers crossed as regards to what happens in the spring."

Other migrants including the red admiral and large white butterflies have also been seen in large numbers on the south coast.

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