The bid to save the Red Admiral butterly in Bolton

PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 October 2013

A Peacock butterfly and a small tortoiseshell

A Peacock butterfly and a small tortoiseshell


Bolton’s Ray Sandiford believes we should be worried about the declining number of our most attractive insect. Roger Borrell reports

Along with snips and snails and puppy-dog’s tails, there’s nothing unusual about a ten-year-old boy collecting caterpillars in a jam jar to see if they’ll grow into butterflies. When he’s still doing it 60 years later, you realise this is a not a man prone to sudden impulses.

After all these years, Ray Sandiford’s passion for butterflies burns as brightly as the wings of his beloved red admiral.

But it’s more than a hobby to Ray, who has bred and released thousands into the wild. He knows unless we take concerted action, future generations will have to rely on books and archive footage to see some of these most cherished insects.

In recent years, bees have received most of the PR, highlighting the alarming dip in numbers. ‘The situation is just a serious when it comes to butterflies,’ says Ray. ‘And they are also important pollinators as they go from plant to plant.’

Sir David Attenborough said: ‘Butterflies are vitally important. Their decline tells us all is not well in the British countryside.’

While parasites, such as certain wasps, prey on butterflies and the weather can also hit them hard, Ray, like Sir David, believes the main threat comes from man through unsympathetic farming methods and the destruction of habitat. ‘A lot is down to land management,’ says Ray. ‘I’ve written to David Cameron about this but I suspect the development of housing into the countryside will continue and people will still pave over their gardens.’

While housing schemes can be halted when newts or bats are discovered, butterfly habitat creates little stir. In an attempt to give nature a helping hand, Ray has a remarkable breeding programme at his home at Breightmet, Bolton.

‘I started when I was ten,’ says the retired upholsterer. ‘I used to collect the caterpillars and release them when they reached maturity. A teacher who is still alive today in his 80s first inspired me.’

Ray’s fascination waned a little in his mid-teens when he discovered girls but he never lost his interest and he managed Bolton Butterfly House in the late 1980s before moving to North Wales and starting a branch of Butterfly Conservation.

He moved back to Lancashire nine years ago and during that time he has made and narrated a film about the life cycle of his favourite, the red admiral. He also writes on the subject and gives illustrated talks.

‘People know little about the life cycle of butterflies – most think they live for a single day,’ he says. ‘But they hibernate and can live for seven or eight months. They also fly amazing distances – they can travel from this country to Portugal and Spain.

Ray has a breeding cage in his conservatory and when they start to emerge from the chrysalis, they go into the butterfly house in his garden. Some are released – 1,000 into the wild last year – while a number are retained for breeding.

‘It’s very rewarding and I hope it will help to save butterflies in the future,’ said Ray. ‘I am planning to produce some leaflets for schools and country parks – unless we take action we are going to lose some of our more common species.

‘Last year I released 400 butterflies at Barton Grange and it was terrific watch people’s faces as they took off. People spontaneously started clapping– it was a wonderful moment.’

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