Thematic Collecting

@ Manchester Museum


August 2015

Thematic collecting: Butterflies conservation at the Prees Heath Common Reserve, Shropshire

In recent years, an increasing concern has been caused by the decline of butterflies in Britain. Almost half of the 59 resident species have reduced their ranges over the last 150 years, and five species have become extinct: Black-veined White (Aporia crataegi; c. 1925); Large Copper (Lycaena dispar, c. 1851); Mazarine Blue (Cyaniris semiargus, c. 1903); Large Blue (Maculinea arion, c. 1979); and Large Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis polychloros, 1980s?). About half of the remaining butterfly species continue to decline nationally or even have become extinct locally on many sites. One of such species is the Silver-studded Blue (Plebejus argus), which is scarce elsewhere in the UK with a high extinction rate (evaluated as 25%): i.e., the species no longer occurs in about a quarter of the localities from where it was recorded in the 1970s. In the UK, this species declined most severely from 1950 to 1980, but with relatively few extinctions occurring between 1980 and 1985 (data by Warren, 1993, for Central Southern Britain).

The main reason for extinction/declining of this and other butterfly species in the UK is a combination of habitat loss and fragmentation/isolation, and changes in habitat management (especially, in Forestry Commission and Public Authority sites). Butterflies are known to be highly sensitive to environmental changes and therefore they often decline whilst their larval food-plants are still widespread and abundant. However, any changes in butterfly populations are to be seen as early indicators of habitat changes that in the future will affect many other wildlife groups.

The Silver-studded Blue is more usually associated with heathland habitats, and a number of regional nature reserves have been specifically established to protect it. One of such sites is the Prees Heath Common Reserve (Shropshire), the last sanctuary for the Silver-studded Blue (Plebejus argus) in the Midlands.

Stephen Lewis, Officer at the Prees Heath Reserve, visited the Manchester Museum on 19/12/2014 in order to study historical records of the Silver-studded Blue from the Midlands on the basis of museum specimens.  He also gave us a short interview about the conservation of the Silver-studded Blue in Shropshire (see below).

A more complete story of the Silver-studded Blue butterfly at the Prees Heath Common Reserve presented by Stephen Lewis can be seen in the following short video.

If you are interested in British Butterfly Conservation (the British Butterfly Conservation Society) and their currently formulated strategy for British butterflies please visit the society’s site.

Further reading:

Warren, M.S. 1993. A review of butterfly conservation in Central Southern Britain: I. Protection, evaluation and extinction on prime sites. – Biological Conservation, 64, 25-35; pdf-file online.

Warren M.S., Barnett L.K., Gibbons D.W. & Avery M.I. 1997. Assessing national conservation priorities: an improved red list of British butterflies. – Biological Conservation, 82: 317-328; pdf-file online.


Thematic Collecting: Migration – The Little Owl in Britain

Little Owl in Stoupa,
Little Owl in Stoupa, Peloponnese, Greece

My family holiday in Greece last spring has proven to be especially productive in that some chance footage of local wildlife that I recorded on my small compact camera has proved to be the inspiration for an interview with Henry McGhie, Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at Manchester Museum, on the subject of the Little Owl (Athene noctua).  Whilst my wife Christine and I were staying in the small resort of Stoupa in the Peloponnese we became aware of a rather unusual bird perched on the roof of the apartment block opposite where we were staying. I filmed the bird, which turned out to be a Little Owl, and spoke to Henry about it when I came back to work. Henry, who has a passionate and lifelong interest in birds, told me that the Little Owl is often seen during the day and that the colour of the eyes of different species of owl indicates when they are most active. The Little Owl has yellow eyes, whilst the Tawny Owl, which has the best night time vision of any of the owls, has black eyes.

Lord Lilford
Lord Lilford

In an interview with Henry recorded for our Thematic Collecting Project about Migration I asked Henry about the bird’s natural range and was surprised to learn that in addition to their southern European range they are also found in Britain. Lord Lilford (1833-1896) was very interested in birds and other animals and was instrumental in introducing Little Owls to Northamptonshire during the 1880s. They were also introduced into Kent. He had encountered Little Owls around the lands in the Mediterranean, where he went for health reasons to benefit from the warmer weather. In ‘Notes on Living Zoological Collection at Lilford’ published in Lord Lilford Thomas Littleton, Fourth Baron A Memoir by his Sister (London, 1900), he wrote:

Whilst on the subject of owls, I may add that for several years past I have annually set at liberty a considerable number of the Little Owl, properly so  called (Athene noctua), from Holland and that several pairs of these most amusing birds have nested and reared broods in the neighbourhood of Lilford. It is remarkable that this species is abundant in Holland, and by no means uncommon in certain parts of France, Belgium and Germany, it has been rarely met with in a wild state in this country. I trust, however, that I have now fully succeeded in establishing it as a Northamptonshire bird, and earnestly entreat all present who may have the opportunity to protect and encourage these birds.

Unfortunately numbers of Little Owls have declined over the last 20 years in Britain and it is not clear why. As the owls diet consists of large insects and large insects tend not to be tolerated as part of the modern agriculture, the owls may not be finding sufficient food to raise broods of young.It would be a great shame I think if such an attractive and endearing little bird should be lost to this country. Although I have never seen the birds in Britain I found them to be very entertaining. The Little Owl we say in Stoupa appeared as if by magic at about 5pm every afternoon on the apartment block opposite and often announced its presence by its penetrating call, which sounds a bit like a small dog barking. It would quite happily watch the world go by, sometimes mobbed by smaller birds, and then, after about an hour, fly away on a hunting expedition. There is a UK Little Owl Project dedicated to the conservation of these wonderful birds.

Silver drachm showing the ancient Greek goddess of Wisdom Athene
Silver drachm showing the ancient Greek goddess of Wisdom Athene


Little Owl on the reverse
Little Owl on the reverse


Seeing the bird added something to our Peloponnesian holiday and it was great finding out more about the Little Owl from Henry. I am more familiar with the Little Owl from seeing representations of owls on ancient Greek silver coins from Athens in Manchester Museum’s numismatic collection, which have the head of Athena on one side and what is presumably a Little Owl on the other. Athenian silver drachma even became known as ‘Owls from Athens’ because of the reverse design. The owls became associated with wisdom, possibly because their ‘face’ looks rather like a human face, or because they were often seen in and around the Parthenon, dedicated as it was to the tutelary goddess of Athens, Athena, the goddess of Wisdom. The temple would have provided a site for the owls to nest.

It is interesting that an owl, almost certainly a Little Owl, appears on a replica of a silver plate found in a famous Roman hoard found at Hildesheim in Germany in 1868. This was one of the largest Roman hoards found outside the Roman Empire and it may have belonged to someone important in the Roman military who campaigned in that part of the world, or it may have been a diplomatic gift to keep one of the German tribes ‘on side’. On one of the silver plates there is a depiction of the goddess Athena seated with an owl perched on a rock alongside her.


Full plate showing Athena seated. The owl is perched on a rock to the left of her outstretched hand.
Full plate showing Athena seated. The owl is perched on a rock to the left of her outstretched right arm and hand.


Detail showing an owl on the replica plate from Hildesheim
Detail showing an owl on the replica plate from Hildesheim

The owl also appears on ancient Greek pots and there is also a slightly quizzical looking owl on a lekythos in the archaeology collection.

Lekythos with owl

Close-up of ancient Greek lekythos showing owl



Thematic Collecting: Migration – Interview about The Little Owl in Britain

A short interview about the Little Owl in Britain with Henry McGhie, Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology, as part of the Thematic Collecting Project on Migration at Manchester Museum:-



Interview about Swiss and Austrians in Roman Manchester

Thematic Collecting: Migration – a short interview with Dr Andrew Fear, Lecturer in Classics at the University of Manchester, talking about an inscription set up by the commander of a regiment of Raetians and Noricans in the garrison of Roman Manchester.


Thematic Collecting: Migration: Red Squirrels at Formby

Squirrel Walk

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