After suspicions were raised, police last year raided Phillip Cullen’s home and discovered hundreds of dead butterflies encased in glass.
LONDON — The killer, a former body builder, stalked his frail victims at nature reserves, in one case clambering over a locked gate armed with a net, before he chased them down, trapped them and carried them away, dead or alive.
In what prosecutors are calling Britain’s first conviction of its kind, Phillip Cullen, 57, was found guilty this week of capturing, killing and possessing specimens of the Large Blue butterfly, the country’s rarest butterfly, admired for its beauty and expressionist blue wings. Cullen, who had denied the charges, could face a maximum of six months in prison when he is sentenced next month.
“It is an offense to capture, kill or possess that butterfly because it is a protected species in the U.K. It is a unique case,” prosecutor Kevin Withey told a magistrates court in Bristol, in southwest England. “There has never been a prosecution in terms of capturing and killing.”
The Large Blue (Maculinea arion), first documented in Britain in the 1790s, was declared extinct there in 1979, but can now be found in 33 sites in southwest England, thanks to David Simcox, an ecologist who drove his van to Sweden in 1983, collected some eggs and reintroduced the insects.
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During the trial, the court heard how Cullen was seen in June 2015 running after the butterflies with a small net at a nature reserve in Gloucestershire while a friend stood watch nearby. He was also observed acting suspiciously at another Large Blue butterfly hot spot in Somerset.
Unluckily for Cullen, a butterfly expert at the Gloucestershire nature reserve witnessed the treachery. When he confronted Cullen and asked him what he was doing, prosecutors said Cullen replied that he was looking for parasitic wasps — not butterflies. But the butterfly expert photographed Cullen trying to catch a Large Blue, evidence that was presented in court.
After suspicions were raised, police last year raided his home near Bristol, where they discovered hundreds of dead butterflies encased in glass. Significantly, two dead Large Blue butterflies were labeled with the letters CH and DB, which prosecutors said stood for Collard Hill in Somerset and Daneway Banks in Gloucestershire, where butterfly abductions or killings had taken place. (It was not clear exactly where the butterflies were killed.)
Cullen said CH was short for “Cobalt Hue” and that DB stood for “Dark Blue.” He acknowledged that he had traded in butterflies in the past, but that he bought them legally and sold them at auction.
Asked by his defense lawyer if he had, at any time, chased a blue butterfly, he replied, “Not at any time.”
“Did you capture one?” his lawyer asked. “No I did not,” Cullen replied.
The collecting of butterflies and moths has a long lineage in Britain stretching back centuries, and was considered a gentlemanly hobby during Victorian times, when collectors would proudly display their catches in glass display cases. Two British prime ministers, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill, were among those who enjoyed the hobby.
But the practice has fallen out of favor in this conservationist age, and of the 59 species of butterflies in the country, six, including the Large Blue, are fully protected, and it is against the law to collect, sell or kill them. The Large Blue is endangered globally.
There is nevertheless a small but hard-core group of butterfly catchers who relish collecting rare species and mounting them as their Victorian predecessors did, said Liam Creedon, a spokesman for Butterfly Conservation. A mounted Large Blue butterfly can fetch as much as $400.
“Britain is a nation of eccentrics, and people engage in odd hobbies like train-spotting … and collecting butterflies,” he said. “Even if butterfly collectors are a small group, they can have a large impact on a rare species like the Large Blue butterfly.”
The Large Blue has an extraordinary life cycle, which Creedon likened to “a plot from the movie ‘Aliens.’ ”
Describing the process, he said that first the butterflies lay their eggs in the flowers of wild thyme. After hatching, the caterpillars drop to the ground and use “honey” glands to lure unsuspecting foraging red ants.
He said the ants take the tiny caterpillars into their brood chamber, where the caterpillars feed on ant larvae. When they turn into butterflies, they manage to scurry to daylight and fly away.