While caterpillar cakes were recently trending on social media, it was a rare species of butterfly that has captured the attention of one Waitrose dairy farmer. Dorset-based organic farmer John Hiscock has dedicated some of his farming land to wildlife, leading to the discovery of a colony of threatened Duke of Burgundy butterflies. 

Local Dorset butterfly expert, Dr Martin Warren of Butterfly Conservation, discovered the colony while strolling a regular trail during lockdown that intersects an organic dairy farm that supplies milk for Waitrose’s Duchy brand.

Not only was the species unrecorded in this area, it has subsequently been determined as one of, if not the largest Duke of Burgundy populations in the UK and one of only a handful in Dorset.

The butterflies, known affectionately as ‘Dukes’, were discovered on part of a 24 hectare chalk downland hill farmed by Dorset organic dairy farmer, John Hiscock – a dedicated producer to Waitrose for over twenty years.

The site was recently included in DEFRA’s 5-year Countryside Stewardship Agreement*, which helped Mr Hiscock re-fence the site to enable the reintroduction of cattle – an act that led to the historic find.

Cattle are essential to maintain the conditions required by the Duke of Burgundy, and Mr Hiscock’s organic methods mean they will be allowed to graze on the site at low numbers in summer and autumn to maintain the mix of open grassland and scrub edge.

The sheltered banks where the ‘Dukes’ were found are rich in cowslips, which is the foodplant of the caterpillars. Without cattle grazing, long grasses and scrub will grow over the cowslips and the caterpillars will not have any food. This would result in the loss of this butterfly from the site at detriment to its and risk its overall survival in the UK – proving again how vital regenerative farming practices such as organic methods are for cultivating and preserving natural biodiversity.

John Hiscock, the farmer of the site, comments: “We were thrilled by the discovery of Duke of Burgundy butterflies found on our downland. We have farmed organically for more than 20 years, with no pesticides, sprays or chemical fertilisers allowing the wildlife habitat to improve and these rare butterflies to thrive along with many other species of wildlife on our organic dairy farm. This has only been possible with the support of our organic Waitrose milk contract, FWAG and the countryside stewardship scheme”.

Jake Pickering, Agriculture Manager at Waitrose, comments: “Native hedges and wildflower meadows are hugely important environments for pollinators. This is why we stipulate that all our UK dairy farms must devote at least 10% of their farms to biodiversity and habitat management, which is unique to Waitrose – with our UK fresh fruit and vegetable farms giving an average of 12% of land to conservation. It’s vital that our food is produced in a way that not only preserves natural biodiversity but enhances it and we will continue to work tirelessly with our farmers to ensure this is achieved. ”

Clare Buckerfield, Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group SouthWest Senior Farm Conservation Adviser in Dorset, comments “I have been advising the Hiscock family on management of the site for 10 years as part of their Waitrose Environmental Standards. It was very exciting to hear from Martin about his discovery. It has always felt like a special place and now it is official”

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