Steven Cheshire's British Butterflies
British Butterflies: Education: Collecting Butterflies
Collecting butterflies
Collecting butterflies with the aim of displaying them as dead specimens in a display cabinet can have some scientific value but on the whole, this practice is frowned upon as our understanding of wildlife protection increases. The ability to record wild butterflies in stunning detail using digital photography and video means there really is no need to capture and kill wild specimens.

Why would you need a have cabinet full of dead butterfly specimens? Its a good question. Many 'collectors' will strongly argue their case but in general, their behaviour is one of selfishness, greed and obsession. No collector could ever claim to be helping wild butterflies by killing them in their prime... often before they have a chance to mate and lay the eggs for future generations. does not endorse the collecting of wild specimens to be killed for display purposes and is firmly against the sale of any such material, whatever its source or age.
Using butterfly nets
Some species are fully protected by law and should not be interfered with in any way. This includes being temporarily captured in a net for identification purposes.

It is important to note that a net may be used to aid identification and leaders of organised walks may use a net in order to allow a group closer inspection of a specimen for educational purposes. I have also used a net on occasion to confirm the identification of difficult species and a net may also be used to catch and ID other wildlife such as bees and flies and day-flying moths. The specimen should always be released unharmed.

Do not be afraid to ask someone about what they are doing, especially if you think they may be collecting butterflies illegally. If they are doing nothing wrong, they have nothing to hide and will happily talk to you and explain what they are doing and why.

Often, local by-laws prohibit the use of butterfly nets. No one is allowed to capture adult butterflies or other life stages on nature reserves, private land or indeed anywhere in the UK if the species is a protected species without a permit from Natural England or the land owner. These permits may be accompanied by a letter from the organisation for whom any research or survey is being undertaken.... e.g. Butterfly Conservation and will clearly state what the person is licence to do. In most cases, licences are granted only for capture and release surveys where researchers are studying butterfly movements or have to capture individual butterflies in order to accurately identify them before releasing them unharmed.
Take action, report illegal collecting to the police
If it is safe to do so, take photographs or video evidence of the illegal activity. Ask the individual if he/she has a licence. It is important to note that licences are only required to capture protected species or to use a net or catch butterflies on protected sites such as nature reserves and SSSI's.

Examples of two successful prosecutions for collecting butterflies in England under Section 9(5)(a) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 are detailed below.

The first case was as a result of an RSPB investigator who gave a presentation at the Police Wildlife Liaison Officers Conference in 1993. Following the conference a police officer from Leicester, who had been present at the conference, arrested two people in 1994 at Leicester Entomological Fair and charged them with offering for sale Chequered Skipper specimens. The dealer was fined £490 on conviction.

The second case was as a result of incidental discovery of a large collection of butterflies during a raid on a suspected egg-collector by an RSPB investigation team. The collection included specimens of the Large Blue, a species fully protected under UK law. It turned out that despite the apparent old data labels with the butterflies, maps found in the flat of the owner showed the locations from which they had been recently taken in Sweden. The collector admitted that he had falsified the data labels and had actually collected the butterflies in Sweden. Unfortunately, the case was thrown out on a technicality, when it was brought in the wrong court.

However, this same collector who had previously escaped conviction was convicted in November 1996 at Salisbury magistrates of offering for sale 13 High Brown specimens without a licence. The collector was fined £150. The man was discovered by a policeman who spotted an advert in a local free newspaper.

Examples of Obsessive Collecting
Collecting butterflies may not be the primary cause for massive species decline or extinction in the UK. Indeed, most instances of decline or extinction in the UK is due to mans greed and need for 'development' resulting in the loss of key habitat for butterflies.

However, in some instances, excessive collecting can have a severely detrimental effect on butterfly populations, especially on rare or threatened species. Barnwell Wold in Northamptonshire, once a site containing Large Blue, was heavily collected for approximately 20 years. In 1860, 200 adult butterflies were taken by one dealer and the colony never recovered.

Most people will agree that this form of obsessive collecting and pressure on butterfly populations will have a detrimental effect on butterfly numbers and certainly does not further the scientific understanding of the species.

Today, collectors tend to be very secretive of their behaviour and tend to avoid collecting on designated nature reserves but will often stalk just outside reserve boundaries on the lookout for butterflies which stray beyond the protection of a reserve. Collectors have been seen outside Bernwood Meadows for example actively collecting the rare Black Hairstreak butterfly. At Wood Walton Fen, collectors have been reported taking butterflies which were part of an attempted re-establishment of the extinct Large Copper.

Other species effected by collecting include the Swallowtail, Purple Emperor, Brown Hairstreak, Duke of Burgundy, High Frown Fritillary, Pearl-bordered Fritillary and Silver-washed Fritillary.

Its not just an issue in the UK
Across the globe an international trade in dead butterflies captured from the wild exists. Much of this is deemed 'legitimate' trade but behind the scenes, the illegal trade in protected species continues.

Black-veined White 'taken in' Provence, France in 1967 available for sale on Ebay in 2011.
Above: Black-veined White 'taken' in Provence, France in 1967 available for sale on Ebay in 2011.

Of course, the loss of our butterflies in the wild cannot be solely placed at the door of collectors. Habitat loss, use of chemicals and insecticides, intensive farming practices and other pressures on our 'wild' places have had a dramatic effect on our native wild butterflies.
The collecting debate
What would you prefer?

1. A butterfly in all its glory, flying wild and free for all to see, now and in the future... or 2. A dead faded butterfly pinned through its body in a cabinet full of other dead specimens?

There are people out in our countryside who capture and kill butterflies just so they can collect them as trophies. Many collectors aim to get a complete 'set' of British Butterflies which means both common and rare species are collected, even species that are protected by law from collection. Once the complete set is achieved, the obsessive nature of collectors means that their collecting does not stop there. They seek out rare forms and aberrants and sometimes plunder vulnerable colonies of large numbers of butterflies.

It is illegal to sell some species if they were collected after the species was added to the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act.
Male and female High Brown Fritillaries apparently collected from Arnside Knott and Brown Hairstreaks from Shabbington Wood.
Above: Male and female High Brown Fritillaries apparently from Arnside Knott in July 1987 and Brown Hairstreaks from Shabbington Wood, Oxfordshire in July 1985... all caught 'apparently' before their inclusion in the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Often, these 'pinned specimens' are sold as 'bred in captivity' from 'old collections' or described as being collected prior to the species gaining protected status... but you have to take the sellers word for it!!

Many collectors/dealers have little or no interested in adding to the scientific knowledge of butterflies and it it is not unknown for data labels to be faked to look old even though the butterflies have been caught recently and illegally. Remember, if someone is selling 'pinned' butterflies, they are selling to make money... not to protect butterflies.

Large Blue apparently collected from a site at Hartland, North devon on 5th July 1953.Left: Large Blue apparently collected from a site at Hartland, North Devon on 5th July 1953 available for sale on Ebay in 2010. This specimen was being sold on the basis that it was collected before the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act became law.

Some collecting may be required in rare instances for scientific research to further the study and protection of species in the wild. In most cases, people conducting legitimate research must apply for an official permit from Natural England to collect small numbers of wild adult butterflies for scientific purposes. Permits will be refused if it is deemed pointless or damaging to capture and kill wild specimens. The resulting specimens should not in my opinion be then sold to the highest bidder, instead, they should be preserved in research institutions to allow for future study.

However, even official collection of specimens apparently sanctioned by Natural England (the Government Agency in charge of protecting our wildlife) have appeared on Ebay. This only makes the argument to stop all illegal collection and sale of wild caught specimens more difficult to police and makes the protection of wild butterflies extremely difficult.

Large Blue apparently collected from a site at Hartland, North devon on 5th July 1953.Left: Large Blue collected from Millook, Cornwall in 1934 by E. A. Laxon available for sale on Ebay in 2011. The seller has a Natural England licence which legitimises such trade.

Most collectors are purely interested in the financial value of pinned butterflies which they can sell to other collectors. Rare species and unusual forms sadly command premium prices putting these species and forms at even greater risk.

Many species of butterfly are under severe threat through habitat loss. This combined with pressure from collectors who try to collect pristine examples of butterflies before they even have an opportunity to mate and lay eggs for future generations can put vulnerable wild colonies at increased risk of extinction.

Similar issues have arisen in the UK over the collecting of birds eggs. As a result, the RSPB has pressed charges and successfully prosecuted those caught collecting or in possession of protected birds eggs. Could such a case ever go to court over the collecting of butterflies?
More information
For a list of UK species protected by law, please read my guide to protected species.

Visit this web site!! Further documentation concerning the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act (with amendments) can be found on the Office of Public Sector Archives web site.

Visit this web site!! The Natural History Museum hold one of the largest collections (The Cockayne Collection) of 'pinned' specimens of British Butterflies. Many of the specimens can be viewed online.
Old collections
Collecting butterflies in Victorian and Edwardian Britain was a popular pastime which lasted well into the 1970's. Even today, there are a few individuals who collect butterflies although this sort of activity is now thought to be generally unacceptable. There are many old collections in existence. But what do you do with these old collections?

I certainly would not suggest that these collections be destroyed. I do however believe that such collections should be held by museums and research bodies such as universities which have facilities to allow the collections to be accessible to the public for research and study. Private ownership does nothing to further the scientific study of butterflies if the collection is only accessible to a limited number of people.

If you have an old collection of pinned butterflies which you would like to donate, in the first instance you may want to contact me or contact your local branch of butterfly conservation for advice.