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Lady Eleanor and her elusive butterfly

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Once widespread on open grassland in England, the Glanville fritillary (Melitaea cinxia) is now one of Britain’s rarest butterflies. Its decline is partly due to its fussy habits. Its sole food plant is ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and, because its caterpillars need the warmth of direct sunshine, it likes to lay its eggs on plants growing in nearly bare ground on south-facing slopes. Since bare ground occurs naturally only as the result of landslips, it is not surprising that few suitable sites are available.

Although the species occurs across much of continental Europe and Asia, it is now found in Britain only along a few miles of sandy cliffs and small coastal valleys on the Isle of Wight, with a single mainland colony on a crumbly Dorset cliff. Attempts to reintroduce it in other mainland areas have so far failed, although global warming may eventually aid its return.

Why the name Glanville? The species is named after an early butterfly enthusiast, Lady Eleanor Glanville (c.1654–1709). She was the first person to catch British specimens of the species, in her native Lincolnshire, which may have been the northern limit of the butterfly’s range at the time.

Lady Eleanor became a regular correspondent of James Petiver (1660–1718), a London pharmacist who was also a renowned naturalist and insect collector. It was he who coined the name “fritillary”, after the Latin word for a chequered dice box.

Petiver used many of Eleanor’s specimens and observations in compiling his ‘Gazophylacium naturae artis’, an illustrated catalogue of British insects. A few of her specimens still exist in the Natural History Museum, as part of its Petiver collection.

Although fascinated by butterflies from an early age, Lady Eleanor only became a serious collector after separating from her violent second husband, Sir Richard Glanville, in 1698. Trying to lay his hands on the large fortune she had inherited, he turned her children against her and claimed that her interest in butterflies was a sign of insanity. But far from being insane, she had shrewdly turned over her properties to trustees and left most of her estate to a second cousin. However, although Sir Richard’s claims failed, after Eleanor died her son successfully contested her will, mainly on the grounds of her supposed lunacy.

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