THE rapidly declining white-letter hairstreak butterfly has experienced a 93 percent decline in numbers across the UK since the 1970s. The butterfly, identified by a distinctive ‘W’ marking on the underside of its wing, is at risk because its caterpillar will only feed on elm. Millions of elm have been lost across Sussex and other parts of the country over the last 40 years due to Dutch elm disease, an infection first brought over to the UK on imported logs from Canada.

To save this rare butterfly from local extinction, hundreds of sussex schoolchildren and college students have joined forces. Volunteers aged from six to 18 are working with wildlife charity Butterfly Conservation (BC) to create new habitat at Lancing College near shoreham airport.

At least 550 disease resistant elm trees will be planted to help the white-letter hairstreak as part of the 'Elms for Adur Hairstreaks' project by BC’s sussex branch, with support from the south downs volunteer ranger service and local young people.

Children from sussex primary schools, special educational needs schools, cubs and scouts groups, college students and teenagers working towards their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award will all be involved in tasks from planting to learning more about the butterfly.

Project Officer and BC sussex volunteer, Jamie Burston, said: “Lancing College is the perfect place to plant elm because the white letter hairstreak has been found breeding nearby and these trees will connect the existing colonies, creating a habitat corridor that will encourage the butterfly to expand its range across the Adur landscape.

“The butterfly’s distribution has dropped by 29 percent in the south east region since the mid 1990s, but at this site, the new trees will be protected from any threats or development and students can get involved in caring for them and surveying the butterfly for years to come.”

Project volunteers have begun planting three types of disease resistant elm, including Lutece, Ademuz and Dehesa de Amaniel. The trees will add to the existing woodland and form hedgerows over the 500-acre Lancing College Estate.

Farm manager at Lancing College, Jon Hutcheon, said: “We already run forest schools in the college grounds to teach our students about local wildlife and conservation, but this project is allowing us to connect with more young people, across a range of ages and from all over sussex.

“It’s so important to teach the younger generation about the importance of wildlife and the pivotal role they will all play in protecting species like the white letter hairstreak in the future.”

The butterfly will use the new elm trees when they reach maturity and produce their first flowers, which takes around five to seven years.

Volunteers from BC sussex will then be able to carry out butterfly surveys and help younger volunteers learn how to spot the butterfly and its eggs.

Funding for the project has come from the Sustainable Communities Fund of South Downs National Park Authority, the Stanley Smith (UK) Horticultural Trust, Tesco’s Bags of Help scheme and BC’s Sussex Branch.

Jamie added: “We’re confident that we can secure a future for the white-letter hairstreak in sussex, as well as contribute to ongoing efforts to minimise the impact of dutch elm disease.

“The support of the Lancing College Estate and the South Downs National Park Authority has been absolutely crucial in getting this project off the ground and by working together, we are hoping to create a lasting legacy for the whole of Sussex.”