Embracing the Interconnected wonders of Collard Hill: Academics, Artists, Activists and (Neo-)Aurelians come together to see the Large Blue Butterfly

By Lois Peach.

“We’re going on a butterfly hunt, we’re going to (digitally) catch a large one!”

In the childhood storybook ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ by Michael Rosen, a family stride through long grass, wade through a river and squelch through sticky mud on an adventure. In this blog, I tell the story of our own adventure, one summers’ day in mid-June, treading up steep hills, walking along paths amongst long grass and sitting in wildflower meadows to find the Large Blue butterfly;  once extinct in the UK and now listed as one of Europe’s most endangered insect species.

We meet on Collard Hill, Somerset, amongst the trees, stinging nettles, and decomposing bark as a group of 16 academics, artists, activists and budding (neo-)aurelians. Most of us are strangers to each other and have limited knowledge of butterflies, including the Large Blue. So, to kick off the day spent roaming the countryside butterfly ‘hunting’ (in the sense of searching and potentially photographing rather than capturing), special guest , Patrick Barkham tells us the tale of the Maculinea arion, or Large Blue

The Story of the Large Blue

The Large Blue butterfly is a fascinating species with an intricate life cycle that depends on specific circumstances to flourish. As a caterpillar, the Large Blue throws itself from the leaves of wild thyme where it has hatched and fed on developing seeds. Falling onto the ground, it attracts foraging red ants with it’s sweet secretions and is then taken into their nest; it disguises itself amongst the ants and then gorges on the unsuspecting ant grubs to grow into a blue-black butterfly.

This deceptive but enchanting butterfly was once considered to be extinct in the United Kingdom but made a triumphant comeback after dedicated research and conservation efforts, led by Jeremy Thomas and supported by numerous conservation groups and charities.

a group of individuals standing in a circle in a woodland

As Patrick shared the mysterious life of the Large Blue and re-told the history of Collard Hill as the site where Swedish Large Blue caterpillars were re-introduced to England in 1983, four years after being declared extinct, the story of this butterfly revealed the interconnectedness of life and the contradictions of conservation. Through the sections below, I convey how during this outing we were frequently reminded that our quest was not just about a solitary species; but a thriving eco-system that beckons us to embrace multi-species and multi-sensory attentiveness at this time of planetary crisis.

Collard Hill

As we set off in search of the Large Blue, we tread the flattened grass path to the top of the hill. The infused aromas of wild thyme and suncream fill the air, attracting not only butterflies but a myriad of other pollinators. The gentle rustling of grasses and chatter of human voices form a melodic chorus.

The Large Blue butterfly’s existence depends on maintaining the delicate balance of habitat and ant interactions. Conservation efforts on Collard Hill and other protected sites since the 1970s, managed or owned by partner organisations including the National Trust, Somerset and Gloucestershire Wildlife Trusts, J & F Clark Trust, Natural England and the University of Oxford, have been instrumental in ensuring the successful re-introduction of this species to the UK.

Conservationists, researchers, and local communities have collaborated for decades to gain a deeper understanding of both the butterfly and ant species’ needs. Through careful management of grassland eco-systems, controlled grazing, and habitat monitoring and restoration, these efforts have successfully increased the butterfly’s population. However, increasingly warming temperatures causing droughts, continue to threaten the Large Blue species and the web of flora and fauna they rely upon.

Nevertheless, visiting Collard Hill, especially at this time of year, offered a unique opportunity to witness the Large Blue butterfly first-hand. A sense of hope hangs in the air.

Close looking

We venture to where the Large Blue has been sighted before. We pass other butterfly enthusiasts who have travelled great distances to spot the Large Blue. “Let the butterflies come to you” says Ray Barnettof Collections and Archives at Bristol Museums and expert on British insect life. So, we each find a quiet place to perch, and sit separately atop a steep grassy slope, waiting.

The prickliness of the dry grass tickles my legs and back as I nestle in amongst it. Appreciating a moment of quiet contemplation in the sunshine I try to ignore how sitting on the dry ground is somewhat uncomfortable, both for me and (probably) for the Large Blue larvae awaiting collection by ants. Many butterflies fill the air around me, mostly orangey Meadow Browns or striking black and white, Marbled Whites. I hear chatter in the distance about moths, other butterfly species and looking closely.

Close looking, explain artists Sophie Mellor and Simon Poulter from Close and Remote, is a practice which involves focusing the attention whilst being open to the unexpected. It emphasises paying attention to certain aspects of the environment whilst exploring more complex systemic issues. It encourages thinking about ecological crises on different scales and is, therefore, a crucial aspect of the larger project this outing is part of, titled, “From the Personal to the Planetary: Interaction, Activism and the Future”.

The ‘From the Personal to Planetary’ (P2P) initiative is a 2 year project led by the University of Bristol’s Brigstow and Cabot research institutes which seeks to bring academics, artists and activists together through research-related activities regarding the environment and climate change. The potential of this project is for collaborative and creative thinking about ecological challenges through different scales (personal to planetary) and across disciplinary boundaries. Looking for the Large Blue was an experiment in what aspects of the P2P project could become: unexpected encounters between people and environments that provide possibility.

Sitting here looking out across miles of Somerset countryside, farm buildings and a network of winding roads, close looking seems a difficult task. In this moment, a common Meadow brown butterfly flies towards me and sits on the frame of my glasses. I stay as still as possible, feeling the tension in my muscles increase, noticing the sharpness of the grass against my skin once more, straining my eyes to see this creature that really is close. And then it’s gone.

individuals sitting on the side of a hill looking at a large flat view across fields

Catching the Large Blue in a ‘digital net’

Whispers of sightings of the Large Blue are carried by the wind. One small butterfly flutters passed me and settles. I am drawn to it and peer closer between the flowers and leaves at the edge of the footpath to see a small, grey butterfly with small spots across its wings. Is this the Large Blue?

If it is, it is deceptive by name and nature.

Instinctively, I get out my phone and start taking a video. Seeing now through human-camera zooming in, the bright blue tinge on the butterfly’s wing is illuminated. Before too long, the (rather small) Large Blue shifts its wings to lift itself into the air and away.

I confirm my sighting of the Large Blue with Ray and show Sophie the photographs I have taken. She suggests that I have caught it in my ‘digital net’ and I reflect upon histories of butterfly hunting which contributed to many butterfly species’ decline and/or extinction. I convey to Ray my surprise at there being so many butterflies here today. He does not feel the same. In fact, he informs me that . We talk about the contradictions of the farming landscape sitting alongside this conservation area – as habitat loss is a key contributing factor to butterfly numbers dwindling – and he recalls times-gone-by when many more butterflies would have been common in peoples’ gardens and lives.

A blue butterfly with black dots sitting on lilac flowers

Under the oak tree

Getting out of the scorching sun of the grassy slope, we all gather under a grand oak tree. Contorting our bodies once more to sit on the uneven ground, amongst the tree roots, we graze on the vegetarian picnic provided. Simon invites us to share our reflections and provocatively channels discussion toward the conservation efforts on the site.

Munching on sweet, sugary biscuits shaped like butterflies we collectively question why the Large Blue has been the focus of our visit and of conservation? Are we drawn to beauty? Or perhaps scarcity? What gets forgotten, displaced, neglected? Who has access, agency, and attention?

Curiosities about power and access become interlaced with memories of child/adult-hoods with/out ‘nature’. These conversations seemed to light fires in people, igniting possibilities for disrupting who gets to decide what species are worth saving; to challenge who gets access to such spaces; and to look toward future activities for the P2P initiative. The Large Blue had given us a way in, a way to think about the simultaneous potential and problematic contradictions of conservation, ecological protection, and environmental uncertainty.

Embracing Interconnectedness

The story of the Large Blue on Collard Hill reminds us of the fragile balance that exists in our natural world and the interconnectedness of all species that inhabit it. Thinking-with the Large Blue enabled a group of unknown but interested activists, academics, artists and (neo-)aurelians to come together to spot this majestic creature. The productive and provocative discussions amongst this group also highlighted the interconnectedness of environmental challenges which require us to think across different scales, look closely and question openly. It is hoped that over the next 2 years, the ’From the Personal to the Planetary’ (P2P) initiative will continue to link academics at the University of Bristol with artists, activists, and communities to do just that: to embrace interconnectedness.

a biscuit shaped like a butterfly