Butterflies in Remote Parts of the Scottish Highlands

My main interest is hill walking, and I have a particular fondness for Scotland. I walk frequently in very remote parts of the Highlands, which are not often visited even by very keen walkers. I have, for example, climbed not only the 284 3,000 foot peaks known as Munros, but the 227 subsidiary peaks above 3,000 feet as well. Only 399 people are known to have done this since records began in 1901, completions of the lists being registered with the Scottish Mountaineering Club.

I have been interested in butterflies for many years now, and a couple of years ago joined the Butterfly Conservation Society. However, I must stress that I am very much an amateur, and so a different weight must be placed on my observations than would be given to, say, one of the editors of the Millenium Atlas.

But my observations may nevertheless be of value, in that they are from areas which are especially remote and difficult of access.

I have two general impressions of the distribution of butterflies in the Highlands:

#1: Many of the kilometre squares in the Highlands in the Atlas are blank, indicating no record exists. My view is that this is because in many of these squares there are no butterflies, rather than that there are but the area has simply not been visited by a recorder because of its remoteness

#2: despite this, I believe that species are more widespread in their distributions than is generally believed

The weather in Scotland can of course be dire, even at the height of summer. On several occasions in July I have been in heavy snowstorms on the tops. But there is the occasional magnificent day of sunshine. Even on such days, the striking feature of long walks over many hours through remote areas is how few butterflies are actually seen. This is particularly the case not only on the high tops, but in the boggy, low-lying glens which make up much of the rest of the landscape. It is possible to walk for literally hours without seeing a single butterfly.

However, there is the occasional surprise. Here are three records, in increasing order of implausibility as far as current records and wisdom on distributions of species is concerned.

The weather on 29 June 2003 was superb. I set off from the ski centre in the forest North of Ben Nevis and the Aonachs at grid reference 173 775 on OS Landranger map 41. I went on tracks through the forest and climbed Aonach Mor by its remote North East ridge. I went from there over Carn Mor Dearg and then climbed Ben Nevis via the Carn Mor Dearg arête, an easy scramble rather than pure walk. My descent was to the car parking at the road head of Glen Nevis via the summit of Carn Dearg South West at 155 701, descending from there into the Coire Eoghainn and down into the glen.

This descent route from the Ben is very rarely used, being continuously steep over much rough, pathless terrain. It should only be attempted by experienced walkers, and indeed there is a notice board in Glen Nevis which proclaims ‘Danger. This is not a route to Ben Nevis’.

I saw some Small Whites along the initial forest tracks, and then no butterflies at all until I was about to descend out of the Coire Eoghainn at around 6pm on a sunny evening. The corrie is grassy and south-facing, and at approximately 165 702 at an altitude of some 650 metres I saw a Mountain Ringlet. I understand that this is the first report of the species on Ben Nevis since 1984 (private communication from Butterfly Conservation Society). I should mention that I have seen Scotch Argus on several occasions, sometimes in considerable numbers, so I believe I am able to distinguish the two species.

I believe that the distribution of this butterfly is considerably wider than is currently recognised, although the Millenium Atlas does mention in the discussion on this species the problems of obtaining records in remote areas in weather which is often inclement.

On 28 May 2002, the weather was overcast but bright. I walked to and from some remote Munros above Loch Monar, in the west of Scotland but much further north than the accepted range of C. palaemon. I imagine that the only people who visit this area are serious Munro baggers, along with the occasional forestry or estate worker.

Both on the way out and the way back, I saw some 6 to 8 butterflies which I thought at the time must be Chequered Skippers. On inspecting the Millenium Atlas on my return home ( on 4 June), I could not see how I could have confused them with any other species. The specific location is on OS Landranger 25. There is a track going east/south east then south from Craig (040 493) on the A890. The butterflies were in the area from roughly where the track leaves the forest (066 487) to where it turns almost due east (075 468 – on the map just to the left of ‘Pollan Buidhe’). The track is near but above the Allt a’Chonais stream, and the surrounding ground is moor-like rather than boggy.

I believe I have also seen this butterfly in the long, remote glens in the Cairngorms, in the East of Scotland. The terrain is similar to that described in the above paragraph. More specifically, the locations are in the upper parts of Glen Derry as it runs north to south bounded by Derry Cairngorm to the west and Beinn Breac and Beinn Chaorainn to the east, and in the long approach from the North to Braeriach on leaving the Rothiemurchus forest.

Many of my walks are done solo, but on this occasion I had a companion. This turned out to be fortunate. Indeed, even with a witness I have only felt able to mention this because of a fortuitous meeting with Roger Dennis, who has been very encouraging. My fear was that it would be regarded as so implausible as to remove all credibility from any future reports I made.

At the end of May 2003, we were at the Linn of Dee, which is about 6 miles west of Braemar and is the road head for excursions into the Southern Cairngorms. On the road was a single but perfect wing of a White Letter Hairstreak. My companion at the time is not into butterflies, but I picked it off the road and took it back to where we were staying in Braemar and we both checked it on the internet. There is no doubt that it was and, as I say, I have a witness! One possibility of course is that it was hit by a car in a completely different location, and just happened to fall off there.

On a final point, I have been willing for some time to submit negative records to the Butterfly Conservation Society. In other words, details of walks in remote areas in favourable conditions in which no butterflies are seen at all. These seem to me to be useful in helping to differentiate kilometre squares in which there really are no butterflies, and squares in which there are, but which are very remote and have not been visited by a recorder. But I have not received an encouraging response to this suggestion.

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