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Rare butterflies return to Norfolk nature reserve after 70 years

September 24, 2019

2019 has been a bumper year for butterflies, most notably, the ‘painted lady’ species, with nearly half a million (420,841)  recorded during this year’s Big Butterfly Count across the UK, the biggest influx for over a decade.


This year, too, there were greater numbers of common species than last year, 1.1 million of the most common five species combined were seen, compared with 660,000 in 2018, with big increases for peacocks (2017,814), gatekeepers (161,987) and red admirals (91,146) whilst marbled whites increased by 264%.


In one Norfolk nature reserve, Wheatfen, Surlingham, the former home of Ted Ellis, one of Britain’s true great naturalists, they’re celebrating the success story of much rarer butterflies for their location, thanks to concerted conservation attempts to entice them back after a 70-year absence.


When Will Fitch took over from warden David Nobbs, who retired in 2017 after 25 years’ service, he was determined to re-introduce species which once would have made the reserve their home.


Thanks to Will’s efforts in woodland management, helped in no small part by a dedicated group of volunteers, both the Silver Washed Fritillary and the even rarer White Admiral have been spotted at the site after an absence of 70 years and a decade respectively. This is in addition to the over 20 species of butterfly which come to the reserve including the also-rare Swallowtail. 


Whilst the two species aren’t red-listed, people still travel many miles to see them as they are uncommon and absent from many woodlands in Norfolk.


“I am thrilled to see the return of these stunning butterflies to Wheatfen and owe a great deal of thanks to the many hours of hard work undertaken by the volunteers to ensure these species thrive,” says Will.


Butterflies, though, aren’t the only success story for 2019. According to Will, it’s also been a bumper year for moths too and again, like the painted lady butterfly, two particular species, the Tree Lichen Beauty and White Pont, have both immigrated from the continent in their thousands during a successful breeding year. The unusual-looking Vagrant Piercer, has also been spotted, also a rare visitor to the UK.


Only last month, on 20th August, 73 different species were identified over 3 hours, a total greater than the overall number of butterfly species that cover the entire UK throughout the seasons, but still only a small percentage of months which inhabit Wheatfen nature reserve throughout the year.


Whilst Will is particularly delighted by the return of these stunning species, woodland management isn’t the only conservation project ongoing at the reserve.


Currently, there are two major projects underway: the first, the removal of 6,000 cubic metres (over 4,5000 tonnes) of mud from the Broad in a huge conservation effort to help countless species. According to Will, the whole Broad would have been lost to succession if the dredging did not take place. Secondly, the removal of over two hectares of scrub in an effort to restore an area of long-lost fen, once rich in flowers.


None of these conservation efforts would be possible without the considerable and ongoing funding of family-owned Norfolk Cottages, the founder and current Chairman of whom, Richard Ellis, is a nephew of Ted Ellis as well as being Director of the Wheatfen Trust.


Richard says: “I’m delighted by the positive effect of the projects helping to encourage and promote all kinds of bio-diversity, the return of rare butterflies being particular triumph and testament to Will and Wheatfen’s volunteers ongoing efforts.


“We host over 60,000 holidaymakers to Norfolk each year, nearly all of whom generously support this cause as our nominated charity, donations which amount to tens of thousands of pounds to the reserve over the years.


“As a family, we have a deep affection for Wheatfen, an amazing and unique part of Norfolk, something which our holiday makers clearly share,” ends Richard.


It’s clear that Ted Ellis’ legacy, The Ted Ellis Trust, is in safe hands, continuing to achieve what he himself committed himself to.


In his own words, “I am very jealous for the pastoral peace of the East Anglian countryside. If it is destroyed, where will all the town dwellers and all the sick-of-suburbs people turn to find unspoiled country? Let us remain a breathing space for the cure of souls.”


Notes to Editors


About Wheatfen


Situated just east of Norwich, Wheatfen in Surlingham is one of the most significant and well-studied wetland nature reserves in Britain.

Spanning 52 hectares, Wheatfen Broad is one of the few remaining areas of the once extensive Yare Valley swamp.


It is, undoubtedly, one of the most important sites of its kind in Britain. As the patron of the Trust, David Bellamy said, "Wheatfen Broad is, in its way, as important as Mount Everest or the giant redwood forests of North America. It is probably the best bit of fenland we have because we know so much about it. That is purely because one man gave his life trying to understand it – Ted Ellis".


Wheatfen is now managed as a nature reserve and consists largely of open fen, reed beds, sallow carr and the small broads Wheatfen and Deep Waters. The house and adjacent land are still owned by the family who permit The Trust to extend the nature trails into Surlingham Wood and The Carr.


For more information about Wheatfen, visit:


About Ted Ellis (1909 – 1986)


Ted Ellis (Edward Augustine Ellis DSc FLS 1909-1986) the well-known writer and broadcaster died in 1986 after a lifetime devoted to natural history. Born in Guernsey to Norfolk parents who returned to Great Yarmouth in 1920, he was Keeper of Natural History at the Castle Museum, Norwich from 1928-1956.


For forty years he lived with his family at Wheatfen Broad, Surlingham in a remote cottage amongst 130 acres of woodland and fen. He was one of the great characters of East Anglia. Although he was a naturalist with a national reputation and his research work was meticulous and highly respected by the academic world, he was a man who had the ability to communicate his enthusiasm to everyone.


Such a man deserves to be remembered and the Ted Ellis Trust was founded to do just that – by preserving Wheatfen. This is a strange primitive area recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is one of the last tidal marshes of the Yare Valley. The Trust wants to preserve its rich and fragile ecology, but above all, it wants to keep this land and its wildlife accessible for the enjoyment and education of children, students and everyone interested in Nature. 

Butterflies throughout the year


Wheatfen is home to over 20 species of butterfly. For more information on what to see when over the course of the year, click on ‘Butterflies throughout the season’.


Big Butterfly Count 2019 (19th July -11th August) Top 10 species seen




1. Painted lady (420,841)
2. Peacock (207,814)
3. Small white (179,715)
4. Gatekeeper (161,987)
5. Large white (138,671)
6. Meadow brown (110,858)
7. Red admiral (91,146)
8. Small tortoiseshell (70,704)
9. Speckled wood (33,015)
10. Green-veined white (32,965)




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