POLICE are investigating after thieves stole large quantities of moss from a remote patch of North-East countryside.

More than 50 carrier bags-worth of sphagnum moss, which grows near marsh violet, the natural habitat for an endangered species of butterfly in the region, was taken from one of the region’s beauty spots.

The Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary is facing extinction, but police believe the moss is valuable and was taken for resale to gardening enthusiasts.

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It is sold to line decorative hanging baskets and was removed from Burnhill Nature Reserve, at Waskerley, near Consett, in County Durham, last week.

Dave Liddle, a countryside volunteer with Durham Wildlife Trust and the Heart of Durham Project, said: “This is going to have a major impact on one of the UK's rarest butterflies as growing among the moss was lots of marsh violet, the foodplant of the small pearl caterpillar.

“It’s vitally important that it gets as much food as it can right now before it turns into the butterfly within the next few weeks.

“This theft could have a massive impact on the population by depriving them of suitable food.”

The Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary butterflies are the rarest in the region and are counted in dozens.

They are found in four areas of the edges of the County Durham moors, west of the A68.

Volunteers have been working with school children and community groups in recent years to grow marsh violets and plant them out.

Mr Liddle said: “It's particularly distressing for us as our staff and volunteers have worked alongside the landowner and other conservation agencies for years to protect and extend suitable habitat to allow the butterfly to spread.

“The numbers of this rare butterfly were actually increasing in this area because of all the valuable work being done.

“This has all been threatened because of this thoughtless action.”

Consett Police said the moss was taken from the ground, among the trees and the undergrowth, between 9am and 11am on Wednesday, May 14.

Inspector Keith Wardle said: “It is often used in hanging baskets so that is the most likely cause as it is the time of year when people are starting to think about doing their gardens.

“It is very unusual. I have never heard anything like this before. It is a one off.”

Anyone with information can call the police non-emergency number on 101.