Was Lycaena virgaureae once a British Native Species?

by Peter Andrews



The subject of whether the butterfly that the British entomologists called the Scarce or Middle Copper L. virgaureae once occurred in Britain, is perhaps one of the most contestable as regards British Butterflies. Jeremy Thomas in his best-selling book The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland first published in 1991, regarded L. virgaureae as a doubtful extinct native species. Other entomologists such as Philip Bertram Allan (1884- 1973) was convinced that Lycaena virgaureae was a British species because of the historical evidence. Unfortunately, disreputable dealers in the 19th century have clouded the issue by importing many specimens of L. virgaureae from the Continent and selling them to collectors as British examples.


18th century historical evidence.

Allan (1956) writes " Years ago Heodes (Chrysophanus, Lycaena) virgaureae Linn, the Middle or Scarce Copper of the old English authors, was not an uncommon butterfly and the evidence would appear irrefutable." In his book Leaves from a Moth Hunter's Notebook, Allan (1980) gave details of John Reinhold Forster (1729–1798) who was the first to record L. virgaureae in Britain in his A catalogue of British Insects, stating that he had taken it plentifully in the neighbourhood of Warrington in northern England, writing " as to be enabled to give some to other collectors." Forster of Scottish decent was born at Tczew in Poland, had settled in Warrington, formerly in Lancashire, (now part of Cheshire) in 1766.  According to Allan (1980) Forester would have been well acquainted with L. virgaureae in his native Poland where it was common. Salmon (2000) who also gave biographical details of Forster, pointed out that the widespread Small Copper Lycaena phlaeas was missing from the list of Warrington butterflies made by Forster and wondered if he had given to wrong scientific name of L. virgaureae to that butterfly. Moses Harris in the Aurelian first published in 1766 had done exactly that, giving the name of  L. virgaureae of Linnaeus wrongly to L. phlaeas. When Joseph Banks withdrew at the last moment as naturalist on James Cook's second voyage, Forster and his son were appointed to fill the vacant position. In July 1772 they set sail on the Resolution, returning to England in July 1775. Forster later became the Professor of Natural history and Mineralogy at the University of Halle in 1779.

Percival (1983) announced  that he had made an important entomological discovery, he had found Henry Seymer's (1714-1785) annotated copy of the Aurelian by Moses Harris, published c1773. Seymer had added figures to plate 34 of the Aurelian of both Lycaena dispar (later to be described by Haworth in 1802) which he wrongly attributed to the hippothoe (Linnaeus, 1761) and two males figures of L. virgaureae showing both the upper and underside. Harris as has been mentioned gave the name of virgaureae to his illustration of phlaeas, Seymer corrected this. Seymer must have illustrated his L. virgaureae from specimens in his collection, as there was no figure of this species at that time in any books. Where did they come from? He added the note 'Papilio Plebeius virgaureae very uncommon'. Later Henry Seymer Junior (1745-1800) coloured his father figures in the Aurelian and this was reproduced in the Aurelian Legacy (p.287) by Salmon (2000).

According to Allan (1980) Dru Drury (1724-1803) the Queen's Goldsmith was asked in 1786 if L. virgaureae was a native by a correspondent " English" replied Drury " I can send it". Drury formed a large world collection of insects, which was sold at auction. William Lewin (1747–1795) in The Papilios of Great Britain (1795) was the first to publish details and illustrate L. virgaureae in this country. Lewin gave the butterfly its English name of the Scarce Copper and added two figures of the male, writing "The natural history of this beautiful species is likewise but little known. I have been informed, that a collector of insects used to take this fly and supply the different collections in London with it, but would not give the least account of its manners, or of the place where he found it. In the month of August I once met with two or three butterflies settled on a bank in the marshes, the sun at that time shining very hot on them; they were exceedingly shy and would not suffer me to approach them." It is a pity that Lewin did not record for history the name of the marshes where he saw L. virgaureae.  Edward Donovan (1768– 1837) in The Natural History of British Insects, vol 5 (1796) wrote " A specimen of this very superb and rare butterfly has been taken in Cambridgeshire. It has always had a place in the cabinets of English collectors of consequence ; but we cannot learn by whom it was discovered in this country."



Figure 1. Lycaena virgaureae with Lycaena phlaeas from plate 41, The Papilios of Great Britain (1795) by William Lewin.


The 19th Century.

Adrian Hardy Haworth (1767–1833) in vol 1 of his great work Lepidoptera Britannica published in 1803 called the butterfly by its English name The Middle Copper. Haworth wrote in Latin that it appeared in marshes in August and it was very seldom seen, marking L. virgaureae with an asterisk that meant he had never seen it in Britain. John Curtis (1791-1862) in British Entomology, vol 5 (1823-1840)  recorded " The fly is found on the Continent in the spring and middle of summer. It is said to have occured on the fens of Cambridgeshire, in the Isle of Ely, and near Huntingdon; and Lewin saw two on marshes in the heat of the day, but they were shy. It seems to have become an extinct species in Britain, although specimens were in all the old cabinets".

John Obadiah Westwood (1805-1893) in British Butterflies and their Transformations recorded "The marshes in the Isle of Ely and Huntingdonshire are also stated as localities of this butterfly, which appears in the perfect state at the end of August." Henry Doubleday (1808 –1875) in his Synonymic List of British Lepidoptera (1847) was the first entomologist to omit L. virgaureae from the British list. Doubleday suspected that many specimens of L. virgaureae came from the notorious Plastead, who imported many continental specimens in the early part of the 19th century and sold them as British.


Historical specimens of Lycaena virgaureae in British collections.

Westwood (1841) recorded of  L. virgaureae " I possess a specimen given to me by the late Mr Haworth as an undoubted native specimen." Haworth who never saw this species in Britain must have obtained it from another source, one that he appears to have trusted. The collection of Westwood, the first Hope professor at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History was brought by his patron Frederick William Hope (1797–1862) for the museum collections in 1857 (Smith, 1986). Haworth's specimen of L. virgaureae is one of the many treasures to be found in the entomological department today, and it was figured by E. B. Ford (1945) on plate 1, historical butterflies of his seminal work Butterflies in the New Naturalist series. In the sale's catalogue of the Haworth collection in 1834 at J .C. Stevens' Auction House, 38 King Street, Covent Garden the  four specimens of L. virgaureae  are listed, three of them are marked as being British. In the collection of James Charles Dale (1791–1872), and his son Charles William Dale (1851-1906) there are three specimens from the Haworth collection, a male labelled Museum Bloomsbury Haworth Sale, and two females, one showing the underside is in poor condition with the  Isle of Ely placed at its side. C. W. Dale, who was a  much less meticulous recorder than his father, and notoriously careless in identification and transcription of records, adding the incorrect year 1824 of the Haworth sale to the L. virgaureae specimens.

A male specimen of L. virgaureae in the Dale collection with Yaxley placed at its side is from William Elford Leach (1791–1836) the Assistant Keeper in the Natural History Department of the British Museum, responsible for the zoological collections. However, the unsuspecting Leach was sent specimens from Plastead who imported specimens and larva of continental species selling them as British, including Lycaena hippothoe, three of which can be seen in the Dale collection labelled Woodside, Epping September 1818. At that time Plastead lived at Epping in Essex.  A female in the Dale collection is labelled Cromer August 26th 1878. Cromer is a coastal town in Norfolk. The collector E.L Capel-Cure of London reported the capture of the female L. virgaureae in the entomologist " On August 26th 1878, during my stay at Cromer, I had the good fortune to catch a female of Chrysophanus virgaureae. At first I took it to be a variety of Polyommatus phlaeas (Small Copper), and it was not until Easter last when I saw C. virgaureae figured in Mr Kirby's European Butterflies and Moths, that I had any idea what a prize I had secured, I was not able, however to obtain any decisive judgement to its true character, until I had taken it to C. O. Waterhouse."  Charles Owen Waterhouse of the British Museum confirmed that it was a pale variety of L. virgaureae. If Capel-Cure capture of at Cromer was a genuine one where did the specimen of  L. virgaureae come from. As the species is found in Norway and Sweden,  Patrick Ooman (per comm, 2015) suggested it could have come from there on north-easterly winds, however it is not known to be a migratory species.


Figure 2. The specimen of L. virgaureae Haworth gave to Westwood, Oxford University Museum of Natural History.



Figure 3. A specimen of L. virgaureae sent to J.C. Dale from W.E. Leach who was told it had been taken at Yaxley, Huntingdonshire. It may have been seen to  Leach by Plastead. Dale collection, Oxford University Museum of Natural History.



Figure 4. Female of L. virgaureae captured by E.L. Capel Cure at Cromer, Norfolk in 1878. Dale collection, Oxford University Museum of Natural History.


Records of Lycaena virgaureae from Somerset.

William Bidgood the curator of the Taunton between 1862-1901 wrote to the Bristol entomologist Alfred Edmund Hudd (1846– 1920)  "About the year 1864 Mr. Woodland gave me a small collection of butterflies taken near Langport early in the century; among them were two or three P. dispar, which he told me were taken by himself. In his early days he had taken care of them, but he got old and neglected them, so that when they came to me they were dilapidated. I preserved every bit I could. Among them were two or three specimens of the "Purple-edged Copper," P. chryseis, which he informed me were taken with the dispar." Bidgood like so many other entomologists had confused his names of this genus and had given the wrong name to the specimens of P. chryseis (L. hippothoe) in the Taunton Museum, they were not that species but  L. virgaureae. Bidgood recorded that John Woodland of Taunton a banker and later a Justice of the Peace had other strange things in his collection that were certainly not British such as Polyommatus alexi, Parnassius apollo, and the very rare migrants Vanessa antiopa and Argynnis lathonia. Woodland cabinet of butterflies, or what remained of them, disappeared from the Museum in the 1880s.

Bidgood wrote to Hudd "Early in the last century the late Professor Quekett and his brother (a banker at Langport) formed a museum in the Hanging Chapel there. This was transferred to our society about 1876–7. The collection had been much neglected, so that when I went to take possession I found everything covered with mildew, moths was playing havoc with the birds and mites with the insects. There were here also three or four dispar, which I was assured by the family were taken at Langport, and also two or three P. chryseis. This was confirmed by Mr. W. Bond Paul, who died in 1896, aged over eighty. He told me he remembered the insects well. The Quekett specimens were L. virgaureae and not L. hippothoe.

My research has shown that the specimens of Lycaena dispar and L. virgaureae  of John Thomas Quekett (1815-1861) in his brother's Edward Quekett (1805-1875) Hanging Chapel Museum came from two sources. The correspondence between John Quekett with James Charles Dale (1791–1872) at archives at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History shows that both men exchanged insects with each other and Dale sent Quekett several specimens of L. dispar.  In a letter dated 8 April 1837 Quekett wrote to Dale that Mansfield, a dealer visited him at his home at Langport. Mansfield had a number rarities for exchange or sale that included specimens of foreign origin. Quekett writes "I got from Mansfield when he was here the other day a pair of Argynnis lathonia, a pair of the Scarce Copper virgaureae, a Deilphila Galii." Hugh Reid (1793-1863) of Doncaster in Yorkshire imported many fine specimens of continental specimens, and was visited by Mansfield from Birmingham who bought many of his specimens, and then travelled the country selling them to entomologists as British examples. Woodland was a friend of Quekett and it is probable that he was visited by Mansfield and that is how he got his continental specimens, including those of L. virgaureae? Mansfield also sold genuine British L. dispar specimens when he could get them, there a female specimen in the Bristol Museum that he sold to John Gray (fl 1839-1869) of Hagley, Stourbridge.


A West Country Story.

There is no doubt Allan was a brilliant and witty writer, and his series of books on entomology are some of the best books written on the subject. If Allan believed all the historical records without doubt if they came what he considered was a reliable source, and he seemed to like a good story, the more mysterious the better. When the wife and friend of the well-known collector Sydney Castle Russell (1866–1955) were visiting Devon in the West Country of England they claimed to have found a colony of L. dispar on a hillside, because of the habitat Allan was certain they  were not that species but L. virgaureae. Allan had visited Castle Russell in 1950 when he first learned of the story, and he wrote about it in the The Entomologist's Record and Journal of Variation (1956) and later in the Leaves from a Moth Hunter's Notebook (1980).

Allan writes " During the first world war my friend, Sidney Castle Russell had to pay a business visit to the West Country in the middle of June. Being in need of a brief holiday after many strenuous months in London, he arranged to go by road, accompanied by his wife and an old friend W. G. Mills. They motored about Devon, searching places where M. athalia would likely to be found, and one afternoon, coming to a small place which lay somewhat off the beaten track, they passed through country of exceptional beauty. Next morning at breakfast C.R. asked his wife how she would like to spend the morning, as he would have to remain at the inn and write letters. Mrs Castle Russell said that she had been charmed by the country she had passed through the previous afternoon, that she would like to go back for a few miles and see it again. Accordingly, C.R. ordered an ancient fly (which was the only conveyance the inn possessed) to be got ready, and presently his wife and Mills drove off along the road by which they had come the previous day. After they had gone a few miles, the driver of the fly pulled up by a stile, from which a footpath ran alongside a hillside above a very beautiful valley, to join another road (actually a loop they were on) which could been seen in the distance. "If you would like a little walk," said the man ," you could take that footpath there and meet me on the other side, it's on the way you are going."  So Mrs Castle Russell and Mills crossed the stile and took the path along the hillside, and after a time they met the fly at the spot indicated. On their return to the Inn, Mrs C.R. and Mills were both enthusiastic about their walk, describing the hillside and valley beautiful beyond belief," and what do you think Sidney," said Mrs Castle Russell, "we saw numbers of the Large Copper flying, we tried to knock some down, but they flew too fast for us. Flying in the sunshine, they looked most beautiful." "They did indeed," corroborated Mills. C. R. looked from one to the other. Both were in earnest "Why, it's impossible," he said "The Large Copper has been extinct for at least fifty years, you could not possibly have seen one."  "But we did Sidney. There is no other butterfly like a Large Copper, is there?" "They must have been fritillaries of some sort".  "They weren't, they were Large Coppers?" - she turned to Mills. "I certainly thought so," said Mills. "What other butterflies are shining copper-coloured?" she insisted. And that was a question her husband could not answer. "Anyhow," she went on, " you can easily prove it yourself, we'll have the fly out after again after lunch and go back and get some."

What did Castle Russell do, he laughed the matter off and went fishing with Mills that afternoon instead.  Asked by Allan he had ever thought of going back to investigate the sightings of the strange butterflies, Castle Russell said he was unsure of the exact location and could not find it on the map, Mills and his wife had no idea how far the horse and trap had travelled, the Inn was uncomfortable, it might rain for the days he was there etc. Can we really believe that if Castle Russell who caught every butterfly he came across to examine it for the most minute aberration  would not have returned if he believed the story. There can not have been many footpaths leading along a valley between two roads that far from the Inn and the man who had taken them to the spot would have known. As Castle Russell said to Allan, "It would probably have been a wild goose chase." However, Allan was convinced with no real evidence that Mrs Castle Russell have really seen a colony of L. virgaureae in Devon that had died out (how did he know he never went to look) in this valley that sounds like a butterfly Shangri La. It is noticeable in this account that Allan does not mention the actual area where this story happened. Certainly the Inn the Castle Russells and Mills stayed at would have been marked on a map. 



Figure 5. Philip Bertram Allan. He was convinced that L. virgaureae was once a British native species.


European Distribution of Lycaena virgaureae

L. virgaureae is absent from western lowland France, Belgium and there have been very few records from Holland. It is found in the mountains of central and northern Spain, France and eastwards through Italy, the Balkans and Scandinavia. It is single brooded, flying from June to September with peak numbers in July. It inhabits flowery meadows, damp places in hills and mountains.


Discussion :

James Tutt (1903) suggested that the early British authors confused L. virgaureae with L. dispar. Allan (1980) stated that Tutt's remark in view of the historical evidence does not hold water, and this is true, however Allan's remark that L. virgaureae was not an uncommon butterfly in Britain is not based on any historical evidence either. The fact remains that only Forster and Lewin claimed to have seen the butterfly in Britain, and if it did really occur here, it must have died out in the late 18th century. Why should it have done so, if there was still so much unchanged habitat in Britain? The fact remains today L. virgaureae is omitted from the British list by current authors as an extinct native species.


References :

Allan, P.B.M. (1956) The Middle Copper. The Entomologist's Record and Journal of Variation. 68, pp. 68-73.

Allan, P.B.M. (1980) Leaves from a Moth Hunter's Notebook. E. W. Classey.

Curtis J. (1823-40) British entomology : being illustrations and descriptions of the genera of insects found in Great Britain and Ireland: containing coloured figures from nature of the most rare and beautiful species, and in many instances of the plants upon which they are found, vol 5. London.

Capel-Cure E. L. (1880) Reoccurence of Chrysophanus virgaurea in England. The Entomologist. 13, p.45.

Donovan, E. (1796) The Natural History of British Insects vol 5.

Doubleday H. (1847) Synonymic List of British Lepidoptera.

Ford, E.B. (1945) Butterflies. New Naturalist Series.

Hudd A.E. (1906) Lepidoptera section. Victoria County History of Somerset volume 1.

Percival,  M. J. (1983) The Lepidoptera of Henry Seymer 1765-1785. Entomologist's Gazette. 34, pp. 215-227.

Lewin, W. (1795) The Papilios of Great Britain, Systematically Arranged, Accurately Engraved, and Painted from Nature, with the Natural History of Each Species. London.

Salmon M. A. (2000) Aurelian Legacy. Harley Books. Clarendon Press. Oxford.

Smith A.Z. (1986) A History of the Hope Entomological Collections in the University Museum.

Stevens J.C. (1834) A Catalogue of the extensive and valuable collection of British & Foreign insects, of the late Adrian Hardy Haworth, Esq ... which will be sold by auction.

Thomas, T. Lewington, R. (2014) The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland. British Wildlife Publishing.

Tutt, J. (1903) A Natural History of the British Lepidoptera volume 8.

Westword  J. O.  and Humphreys H. N.  (1841) British Butterflies and their Transformations. London.


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