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Butterfly Conservation- Glasgow & South West Scotland Branch

Mountain Ringlet Surveys in 2013

Figure 1: Distribution Map
(Click for bigger image)

The Mountain Ringlet (Erebia epiphron) is a rare UK butterfly being confined to montane habitat between 350 & 900 m in the central highlands from Ben Lomond in the south to Creag Meagaidh /Glen Roy in the north and from Glasdrum/Glencoe, Argyll in the west to Schiehallion in central Perthshire in the east with two known colonies further east in the Cairngorms National Park: Glen Doll & Glen Feshie. This distribution amounts to just 55 10 km squares in Scotland which makes it much rarer than the iconic birds of the Scottish mountains such as the Ptarmigan & the Golden Eagle.

Given the presence of large areas of land from 350-900 m outside the known range, there must be a factor other than altitude which explains this limited distribution of Mountain Ringlet. This aspect of Mountain Ringlet ecology has been investigated as part of a research project into montane invertebrates being funded by Scottish Natural Heritage, the John Muir Trust, the National Trust for Scotland & Butterfly Conservation during 2008, 2009 and 2011.

Previous research suggests that it is a combination of damp Mat-grass Nardus stricta grassland and abundant nectaring plants which provides good habitat for Mountain Ringlet. Analysis of data on vegetation characteristics recorded from 153 1km squares within the known range of Mountain Ringlet and from 20 1km squares outside the range in the Cairngorms confirmed the findings of this earlier research and showed that the habitat of Mountain Ringlet is herb-rich Nardus grassland.

Findings of Mountain Ringlet Surveys
Figure 2: New Squares 2008-2012
(Click for bigger image)

The survey work in 2008 and 2009 has resulted in two papers on Mountain Ringlet being published in Atropos which detail the latest knowledge on Mountain Ringlet ecology: Atropos Paper 1 (PDF file); Atropos Paper 2 (PDF file).

2008 and 2009: Over these two seasons, a total of 2274 Mountain Ringlet were found. Seventy-three new 1km squares were found which were mostly adjacent to historical squares with Mountain Ringlet. This shows that Mountain Ringlet is under-recorded in Scotland,

2011: A total of 861 Mountain Ringlet were found in 50 different 1km squares, 24 of which were new squares for Mountain Ringlet.

2012: A total of 151 Mountain Ringlet were found in nine different 1km squares all of which were both new squares and on new mountains for Mountain Ringlet: Beinn Mheadhonach, Beinn Eunaich and Beinn na Sroine in Argyll and Beinn Mhannach in Perthshire.

These data over four years mean that there has been a 44% increase in the number of 1km squares with Mountain Ringlet in Scotland from 243 in 2007 to 350 in 2012 (Figure 2). However, the map shows that across most of the range of Mountain Ringlet, the 1km squares are fairly scattered whereas around Ben Lawers, a much higher density of squares are present. Survey work has revealed that Mountain Ringlet habitat is more extensive in the Breadalbanes area whereas on mountains elsewhere, it is sometimes patchy. But it is likely that throughout its distribution, there are many more 1km squares with Mountain Ringlet yet to be discovered - quite possibly a few hundred more!. The new 1km squares in 2012 all came from mountains with no previous records which supports this view.

Recording of Mountain Ringlet with a Geo-Positioning System (GPS) Device in recent years has resulted in 2694 records each with an accurate altitude measurement. These altitudes are plotted against date in Figure 3 which shows that Mountain Ringlet occur at higher altitudes later in the flight period. This regression relationship shows a rise of 8 metres per day during the flight period although on any given date, Mountain Ringlet occurs over several hundred metres of altitude. This chart also shows that provided searches take place during the second half of June, Mountain Ringlet can still be found at lower altitudes of 350-500m which suggests that claims of low altitude colony extinction from climate warming are incorrect.

Using the survey methodology described lower down this page, Mountain Ringlet habitat scores have been calculated for 336 different 1km squares during 2009, 2011 and 2012. These habitat scores provide a measure of both the extent and quality of habitat in a square and for squares where Mountain Ringlet has not been recorded, they indicate the likelihood of Mountain Ringlet being found if the square is searched during late June/July 2013.

The links below open Word documents each containing a map showing 1km squares in which Mountain Ringlet has been found and a map showing Mountain Ringlet habitat scores which are useful for finding new 1km squares for Mountain Ringlet. Of course, 1km squares without a habitat score may also be targetted and ideally the survey form should be completed so a habitat score can be calculated whether or not Mountain Ringlet is found in the square. Given the difficulty of finding Mountain Ringlet due to cold cloudy conditions in the mountains, completing a survey form ensures that useful data is obtained at the end of the day.

If you can get out to the mountains shown on these maps on a warm sunny day in late June/July 2013, you should be rewarded with finding a number of new 1km squares for Mountain Ringlet. But if conditions are cloudy and cool which is very common, few or no Mountain Ringlet are on the wing and the species is very difficult to find even if you are walking in superb habitat over several hours!

Click here to download the Mountain Ringlet Survey form as a Word document which you can print out to take out into the field.

1km Squares to survey in 2013

Figure 3: Alitudinal Distribution of Mountain Ringlet
(Click for bigger image)

Peak flight period is late June to mid-July when surveys should be done.

Bridge of Orchy Mountains (Word Doc)

Ben Lui Mountains (Word Doc)

Beinn Udlaidh Mountains (Word Doc)

Ben Cruachan Mountains (Word Doc)

Bonawe Mountains (Word Doc)

Mamores Mountains (Word Doc)

Meall na Samhna Mountains (Word Doc)

Stuc an Lochain Mountains (Word Doc)

Invervar, Glen Lyon Mountains (Word Doc)

Mountain Ringlet Challenge 2013

Although there are no records of Mountain Ringlet north of the Great Glen, it is very likely that it is present here as colonies exist on the southern boundary of the Great Glen on Aonach Mor (Nevis Range Ski Centre) and in Glen Roy near Spean Bridge. Moreover, suitable habitat was found on Beinn Bhan (NN1285) above Glen Loy in 2011 which is just 10km from the known colonies on Aonach Mor.

If you would like to accept this Mountain Ringlet Challenge, pick a mountain just west of the Great Glen in the Loch Eil or Loch Arkaig areas and visit in late June/July 2013 and you may be able to get a new 10km square for Mountain Ringlet and be the first to find this rare butterfly north of the Great Glen!


The Mountain Ringlet is a small dark brown butterfly with orange bands containing black spots on both upper and underwing surfaces. Distinctive features of this small butterfly are the white legs and antennae which contrast strongly with the dark body.

The Mountain Ringlet can be confused with the closely related Scotch Argus (Erebia aethiops) which is a somewhat larger dark butterfly which also has orange bands on the upperwings containing black eyespots and which is also found in the Scottish Highlands. A distinctive feature of the caledonia sub-species of the Scotch Argus which is the sub-species which occurs in Scotland is the narrowing of the orange band on the upper forewing between the two anterior eyespots and the single posterior eyespot. Also, the Scotch Argus flies somewhat later in the summer commencing about the 20 July but this overlaps with the latter part of the flight period of the Mountain Ringlet which can lead to mis-identification of the much rarer Mountain Ringlet.

Mountain Ringlet Upperwing
Scotch Argus Upperwing
Credit: Andrew Masterman
Credit: Andrew Masterman
Mountain Ringlet Underwing
Scotch Argus Underwing
Credit: Andrew Masterman
Credit: Jim Asher

Methodology for Recording Mountain Ringlet

Either, simply count all Mountain Ringlet seen within a 1km square and provide six figure grid references to represent where you saw them and note this on the recording form or preferably use a GPS device and record each Mountain Ringlet seen with a waymark - this enables both a precise position and precise altitude to be determined. Some standard settings are required: set position to be recorded as British National Grid and altitude in metres. Once your track and waymarks are downloaded to your computer, please save as a text (TAB delimited) file or Excel worksheet without editing, and . But the Mountain Ringlet Survey Forms should be completed too and sent to this email address or posted to the address on the form.

Methodology for Vegetation Surveys to produce a score for Mountain Ringlet Habitat

The aim of this survey work is to produce a score out of a maximum of 20 for each 1km square on different aspects of mountains which measures the quality of the land for Mountain Ringlet. A GPS device would be very helpful for this work as you need to know where you are in relation to specific 1km squares. To adequately survey a 1km square, a walk 500 to 750 m long within a square should be done with the aim of surveying several squares on the various slopes of a mountain by doing a circuit. A pair of binoculars would be helpful in scanning vegetation from a distance.

1) Score to determine extent of land with suitable altitude range and aspect within a 1km square:

NB: ha = hectare and there are 100 hectares in a 1km square.

  • less than 10 ha S-facing slopes from 400-800 m = 0
  • 10-30 ha S-facing slopes from 400-800 m = 1
  • more than 30 ha S-facing slopes from 400-800 m = 2

2) Score to determine that Mat-grass grassland is present in the 400-800 m altitude range within a 1km square (i.e in the area estimated in 1) above):

  • less than 10 ha Mat-grass grassland with Mollinia/Heather/Blaeberry/Rock/Other dominant = 0 (most squares within the Grampians would probably have this score as Heather and Blueberry are dominant here).
  • 10-30 ha with Mat-grass grassland = 1
  • more than 30 ha with Mat-grass grassland = 2

3) Score to note presence/absence of sheep grazing: sheep grazing is known to favour a sward dominant in Mat-grass.

  • no sheep grazing = 0
  • sheep grazing = 1

4) Scores to record the abundance of the nectaring plants: Tormentil; Heath Bedstraw; Wild Thyme; Alpine Lady’s Mantle; & Meadow Buttercup. A minimum of five gullies (with or without streams) should be investigated and the grassland outside gullies also assessed. A higher density of flowering plants is usually found within gullies, especially gullies with streams but on south-facing slopes outside gullies, Wild Thyme, Heath Bedstraw and Alpine Ladys Mantle may form carpets of flowers above about 600 m and Tormentil and Meadow Buttercup may be scattered amongst Mat-grass grassland.

Score the abundance of each of the five nectaring plants by looking in dry gullies and gullies with streams and by looking at the vegetation outside gullies:

0 = absent      1 = present within gullies      2 = abundant within gullies      3 abundant within gullies and large areas outside gullies

The following pro-forma should be used to record the survey data Mountain Ringlet Survey Form., one for each 1km square surveyed. A list of mountains and 1km squares to survey will be posted here in due course.

The following are photographs of Mat-grass and four of the five nectaring plants (we all know what Meadow Buttercup looks like!) and this document enables you to print them out to take out into the field.

Mat-grass plant
Mat-grass grassland
Credit: Andrew Masterman
Credit: Andrew Masterman
Credit: Andrew Masterman
Wild Thyme
Heath Bedstraw
Alpine Lady's Mantle
Credit: Andrew Masterman
Credit: Andrew Masterman
Credit: Andrew Masterman

Mountain Safety

A moderate level of fitness is required for this survey which involves ascending and descending mountain slopes over a number of hours if several 1km squares are to be surveyed. Also, the standard mountain safety advice applies.

  • TAKE map, compass/GPS, mobile phone and/or whistle, sun hat, watch & survival bag.
  • DO let someone know your expected route and expected time back and what to do if late (ie a 'buddy' system).
  • DO wear stout footwear, preferably walking boots
  • DO take warm clothing and waterproofs as conditions are likely to be colder and windier up a mountain even on warm sunny days and because conditions can change
  • DO take food and drink
  • DON'T attempt to survey along waterfalls, scree slopes or above crags or steep slopes
  • DON'T put yourself or anyone else at risk during this survey

If you prefer to send in more limited data by email, then please with basic information including 6 figure OS map reference, date and counts of Mountain Ringlet.

It would also be appreciated if a volunteer timesheet could be completed if you participate in this survey. If you let Butterfly Conservation know about the hours you have worked, we can claim your time as match funding against our grants.

Survey Checklist

If you would like to participate in this Mountain Ringlet Survey, there are a few documents you need to print out which are listed below:

Written by Andrew Masterman

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