As It Happens

British ex-bodybuilder convicted of killing rare butterfly

An ex-bodybuilder has been convicted for stealing killing several specimens of Britain's rarest butterfly. Here's how he got caught.
The large blue went extinct in Europe in 1979, but its population is starting to grow again thanks to long-term conservation efforts. (Keith Warmington/Butterfly Conservation)

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An ex-bodybuilder has been convicted of stealing and killing several specimens of Britain's rarest butterfly — thanks in part to the detective work of an eagle-eyed butterfly enthusiast.

Phillip Cullen, 57, was given a six-month suspended sentence for illegally capturing and killing two Maculinea arion, better known as large blues, so he could frame and add them to his vast personal collection. 

He was convicted partly based on the testimony of key witnesses like Butterfly Conservation's Neil Hulme, who first saw the butterfly killer at a nature reserve in Gloucester, U.K. in June 2015.

"I knew he was up to no good," Hulme told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Hulme was at the park specifically to see the large blue. As it turned out, so was Cullen. 

"I saw Mr. Cullen and a friend of his climb over a locked gate at the lower end of the reserve carrying a small net, which immediately aroused my suspicion," Hulme said. 

"Initially, because I was suspicious, I decided not to pay them much attention and then [I] came back later and spent the next couple of hours tracking him and following him around the reserve, sort of hiding behind trees and bushes, and taking photographs from long range and making notes and basically building a case."

Phillip Cullen (pictured) has been convicted of illegally capturing and killing specimens of Britain’s rarest butterfly, thanks in part to photos snapped by butterfly enthusiast Neil Hulme. (Neil Hulme/Butterfly Conservation )

Hulme says he was too far away to actually see Cullen trap a large blue, but he did see him chasing butterflies with his net. 

After his amateur sleuthing stint, Hulme sounded the alarm and alerted the reserve authorities, his seniors at Butterfly Conservation and the police. 

He wasn't the only one. According to The Guardian, several witnesses reported seeing Cullen acting suspiciously at nature reserves in Britain.

Police launched a criminal investigation that eventually led them to raid Cullen's home, where they found a large collection framed butterflies, including two large blues.

'Not just a butterfly'

At first, Cullen denied capturing the creatures, but apologized through his lawyer after his conviction last week.

"He accepts the enormity of what he has done. He only had one from each site, but he accepts that, if everybody did that, they would die out," defence lawyer Michael Hartnell told reporters. "He is extremely remorseful. His interest in the countryside and wildlife is one he has had for a long, long time."

Neil Hulme calls the large blue 'an iconic symbol of conservation efforts in Britain.' (Neil Hulme/Butterfly Conservation)

Hulme said the sentence sends the appropriate message about the importance of respecting a protected species like the rare blue, which he called "a really beautiful looking creature."

"It's slightly iridescent in the sunshine," he said. "It flies slowly and deliberately."

Endangered around the world, it went extinct in Europe in 1979, but has been successfully re-introduced to the continent thanks to a long-term conservation effort.

Killing them is not just a crime against the bug itself, but a slap in the face to the many scientists and conservationists who have worked so hard to revive its dwindling population, Hulme said. 

 "It's not just a butterfly," he said. "This is an iconic symbol of conservation efforts in Britain."


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