NATURE lovers have created a panel to celebrate one of their most successful projects thanks to a legacy from a late wildlife enthusiasts who had a passion for butterflies.

The Durham Wildlife Trust created the panel in its Black Plantation Nature Reserve, near Lanchester, with a legacy from Harry Eales.

The interpretation panel depicts the life cycle of one of County Durham’s rarest butterflies, the small pearl-bordered fritillary.

It was unveiled by Stuart Pudney, of Northumbrian Water, which backed the project to bring the insect back from the brink of extinction in County Durham.

Between 1977 and 2004, it was calculated that one third of the English colonies of small pearl-bordered fritillary became extinct and in County Durham, by 2000, there were only three known sites left, a decline attributed to changing climatic conditions, changes in land use and degradation of existing breeding grounds.

Durham Wildlife Trust’s Heart of Durham Project, with support and funding from Northumbrian Water, was set up in 2010, with the specific aim of reversing the decline of the butterfly.

Through a collaborative approach with landowners and farmers, Butterfly Conservation and Durham Wildlife Trust, as well as the dedication of trust volunteers, areas where the butterfly was once common have been restored through scrub removal and planting of marsh violets, the larval food source. Nine years, on the project can now be hailed as ‘re-wilding success’.

Back in 2014, Black Plantation was chosen as a site to reintroduce captive-bred small pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly caterpillars. From the initial 170 caterpillars released, today, five years on, the colony there has increased three-fold.

On a bright warm sunny day, the vivid orange of the small pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly, so called because of the series of pearl drops along the hind wing edge, is a sight to behold and has brought enthusiasts from all over the country.

Harry Eales, who died in 2017 aged 74 years, played a key role in recording butterflies in County Durham. On retiring, Harry started surveys for Northumbrian Water in 2002. He had been reviewing his butterfly data originating from the 1960s and realised that there was very little or no data on Northumbrian Water reservoirs, so he contacted Northumbrian Water and the Northumbrian Water Conservation Team came up with a list of thirteen sites for him to survey.

These surveys focused on dragonflies but Harry also recorded bees, day-flying moths and butterflies owing to his interest in these species as well.

Anne Porter, Heart of Durham project officer, said: “We are delighted that we can pay tribute to the work that Harry did.

“Harry continued to do surveys for Northumbrian Water on an annual basis for more than a decade. His reports were always very comprehensive and written in an informal style with recommendations that Northumbrian Water could implement.

“Today, Black Plantation is only part of the story. The small pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly is spreading across various sites in County Durham. Colonies are increasing and becoming robust and it is hoped that this will help the butterfly to be more adaptable when faced with environmental challenges.”