Dr Steven Ewing, of the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, reveals the secrets of the rare and beautiful mountain ringlet – and explains why it needs our help. You can contribute by making a donation towards our work.

Photo by Ian Leach

Meet the mountain ringlet

Emerging from behind a cloud, the sun’s rays start to warm the ground. Deep within the grasses where she has sought shelter from the elements, the female butterfly grasps the opportunity.

She begins the slow, ponderous climb to the top of the nearest tall grass blade. It’s not easy though, as her abdomen is heavily laden with eggs, her contribution to the next generation. Halfway up the grass stem, a gust of wind catches her off-balance and she is dumped unceremoniously back on to the ground where she first began.

Undeterred, she begins again, driven on by instinct. Finally, she reaches the top of the tall grass blade. Spreading her wings to reveal warm orange and ochre hues on a backdrop of dark brown, she waits momentarily, before launching herself from the grass blade, and taking to flight. The search for a suitable location to lay her precious eggs begins…

The habitat of the mountain ringlet

Restricted to the mountains in the Lake District and central Scottish Highlands

This is a scene that has been repeated in parts of the UK since shortly after the glaciers retreated following the last Ice Age. Mountain ringlets, the UK’s only truly mountain-dwelling butterfly species, would have been one of the first butterfly colonists of that sparse and unforgiving landscape.

And it is a cycle that continues to this day, on the flanks of remote and lonely mountains in the Lake District and the central Scottish Highlands, where mountain ringlet butterflies emerge en masse for a few short weeks between June and August (depending on location). Sadly, the isolation ensures that it is a spectacle that very few people are able to witness.

Mountain ringlet. Photo by Steven Ewing

Look out for them on sunny days

The irony is that the UK’s only mountain-dwelling butterfly is truly a sun-loving creature, only emerging from the depths of its mountain grasslands when the sun is out. You would be forgiven for thinking that this is a strategy doomed to failure, given that in the parts of the UK where it lives, cloud covers seems to be almost continuous. But clearly it works.

On rare sunny days during the flight period, otherwise quiet mountain grasslands are brought alive by the frenetic activity of these butterflies. Males, buoyant on the wing, patrol their territories looking for females with which to mate, occasionally stopping off to take a sip of nectar from tormentil or heath bedstraw. Females continue their unending search for suitable locations for their eggs.

But do not think that mountain ringlet butterflies are anything but hardy little creatures. Especially the caterpillars, which often have to endure Arctic-like conditions as they overwinter deep at the base of grass roots to escape the worst of the chill.

Photo by Peter Eeles

The UK population is in trouble

Sadly, all is not right for the mountain ringlet – there is evidence that the UK population is in trouble.

One study carried out by academics at the University of York suggested that the species had disappeared from almost 40% of sites surveyed since the 1970s. And the UK’s only long-running annual mountain ringlet count, carried out at Ben Lawers National Nature Reserve by staff of the National Trust for Scotland, shows a worrying declining trend.

The causes of these declines are poorly understood, but the existing research does offer some pointers. The University of York study demonstrated that mountain ringlets had retreated uphill by around 150 metres; in other words, the butterfly is no longer found at as low an altitude as it once was. 

So, climate change may be contributing to the mountain ringlet’s decline, with lower altitude sites potentially becoming too warm for them to survive. Habitat changes may also have played their part, particularly in the demise of local populations. Further research is needed to understand precisely which factors are driving changes in this enigmatic little butterfly.

Steven Ewing working on the RSPB's mountain ringlet project

Help save mountain ringlets – a joy to be shared by future generations

But ultimately, why should we care about the fortunes of a small butterfly that lives far from the gaze of the vast majority of the human population in the UK?

Well, I subscribe to the belief that each human generation is only a temporary custodian of nature and the world around them, and inherent in that is the responsibility of passing this on to future generations intact. Mountain ringlets should be a joy to be shared by future generations.

We should also be interested in mountain ringlets because they are likely to be a bellwether for the health of our mountain grassland ecosystems, and changes in their populations likely herald wider changes afoot.

And finally, they form an important part of their ecosystem, the caterpillars and butterflies themselves providing food for array of other insects, small mammals and birds. If you think of an ecosystem like a game of Jenga, there are only so many wooden bricks that you can afford to pull out before the entire tower comes tumbling down.

The RSPB cares. That is why the mountain ringlet is one of our priority species, for which we are actively undertaking conservation work to help secure its future.

Please support our mountain ringlet crowdfunding campaign

Together, we can give mountain ringlets a brighter future in the UK. Please donate today.

Can you spot the tiny mountain ringlet egg?