Once thought extinct, the Eltham Copper Butterfly was rediscovered in 1986 in Eltham, in a small patch of bush that was going to be bulldozed to build houses. A campaign to save the butterfly’s habitat began and the local council, State government and local community raised the money to buy the land and make it a conservation reserve. Since then other sites have been reserved in other parts of Eltham, Greensborough, Castlemaine, Bendigo and Kiata.
Eltham Copper Butterfly (Paralucia pyrodiscus lucida) perched on Sweet Bursaria, Bursaria spinosa.
Image: Andrea Canzano
Source: Andrea Canzano
Over time, butterfly numbers in the Eltham reserves went down. People from the nearby houses would walk through the reserves, let their pets in and local kids couldn’t resist building cubby houses. Active trampling wasn’t the only problem. The reserves weren’t being grazed by native fauna or cleared by periodic burns any more. Vigorous native plants and weeds started to crowd out Sweet Bursaria, the butterfly's sole food. The habitat was no longer ideal for the larvae or butterflies which need patches of sunlight and clear flight-paths.
Eltham Copper larva being tended by Notoncus ants on a Sweet Bursaria bush. The Eltham Copper Butterfly can only live in habitats where this plant and these ants are present.
Image: Andrea Canzano
Source: Andrea Canzano
A couple of years ago I ventured out one cool September night to help with the larvae count at an Eltham reserve. While it was exciting to be in the bush at night we didn’t find a single larva where they had been numerous a few years earlier. Results like his made people realise that it was not enough to fence off reserves and expect the butterflies to flourish.
In 2012 the Friends of Eltham Copper Butterfly in partnership with Nillumbik Shire Council, Parks Victoria, Friends of Diosma Road, Friends of Woodridge Linear Reserve and Eltham East Primary School obtained a Communities for Nature grant to protect and enhance the habitat of the Eltham Copper Butterfly.
The habitat restoration involved skilled workers selectively weeding the reserves and planting more Sweet Bursaria, other butterfly-attracting native grasses and daisies to bring the vegetation back to an ideal mix for the Eltham Copper Butterfly.
And the result? Already, only 12 months later, there has been a significant increase in the number of Eltham Copper Butterflies recorded in the counts in this summer (2013-14). It is an encouraging start, and supports the idea that active management can make a decisive difference for an endangered species. Ongoing community involvement and education is the other vital component. This takes many forms from festivals, to butterfly-friendly garden courses, to education in the local schools.
Eltham East Primary School children have planted a butterfly garden. Here they're
learning about the Eltham Copper Butterfly.
Image: Alison Bayley
Source: Alison Bayley
So it looks hopeful for the Melbourne Eltham Copper populations but what about the butterfly in Central Victoria?
In 2009 there were only three known butterfly sites in Central Victoria but in the last five years a small team surveyed 3,000 hectares of public land looking for the right habitat features for the butterfly – a combination of enough Sweet Bursaria bushes in an open forest habitat. Having identified promising areas, they went back at the right time of year to see if they could find the adults. With great excitement they found seven new sites bringing the total in the region to ten.
Julie Whitfield, a leader in Eltham Copper butterfly conservation in Central Victoria, at a site where a colony of butterflies was found at Big Hill, Bendigo.
Image: Kate Phillips
Source: Museum Victoria
However at the same time these new butterfly colonies were being discovered, the risk of fire was brought into sharp focus and fuel reduction burns given greater priority.
Areas surrounding regional towns such as Castlemaine and Bendigo are set aside to be burnt each year. Many of these overlap with the newly-discovered Eltham Copper butterfly habitat. The fuel reduction burns are designed to be ‘thorough’. While this is seen as good fire risk management it endangers fire-sensitive species such as rare orchids; a fire in Eltham Copper Butterfly habitat could wipe out one of its populations. However when on-the-ground knowledge is used to guide fuel reduction burns, important habitat pockets can be excluded. It is not a case of conservation versus safety, but a balancing of the two needs.
Thanks to Andrea Canzano, Karen Borton, Anne Fitzpatrick and Julie Whitfield for their contributions to this post.