Daneway Banks that afternoon was the “large blue”, Maculinea arion, one of Britain’s rarest and most coveted butterflies. The species is globally endangered and it was declared extinct in the country in 1979, but a dedicated and unprecedented conservation effort has seen it reintroduced to 33 sites. The locations of many of these populations are closely guarded secrets, but Daneway Banks, which supports the second largest number of large blues in England (and therefore effectively the world), is well-known among lepidopterists. When the site was officially opened in 2016, the Prince of Wales did the honours.
The following day, 57-year-old Cullen and his accomplice appeared, helpfully wearing the same clothes, on another nature reserve dedicated to the large blue. Here, at Collard Hill in Somerset, a volunteer warden— pre-warned by a report from Hulme, circulated overnight—was waiting for them. When she questioned Cullen, he claimed he was only interested in parasitic wasps. These sightings provided strong circumstantial evidence, but Cullen was ultimately brought down by his eBay records. These listings, which showed illegal specimens bought and sold, some from as far afield as Java in Indonesia, were sufficient for magistrates to issue a warrant to search his home.
At 9am, on 13 February 2016, police arrived at Cullen’s address, on the outskirts of Bristol, with two butterfly experts from the Natural History Museum. Cullen, who is unemployed, lives in social housing with his wife and a grown-up son. The search of the two-bedroom house did not take long. There was a pile of rocks in the living room, which were part of another collection, and then—bingo. There in a cabinet was drawer after drawer of rare butterflies, arranged and pinned under glass, including more than 20 examples of large blues. The most recent of these were captioned “DB18” and “CH18”. Cullen insisted that the labels referred to “Dark Blue” and “Cobalt Hue”. In court, the prosecutors speculated that they were references to Daneway Banks and Collard Hill, and that 18 tallied with 18 June, the day he was seen in the Cotswolds.
The magistrates agreed and, in March 2017, Cullen was convicted for capturing, killing and possessing large blue butterflies. It was the first time an individual had been prosecuted in Britain for harming an insect, and a prison sentence was considered. In the event, Cullen was spared jail time, but he had to pay a SGD691 fine and perform 250 hours of community service.
Perhaps it was a slow news day or maybe it was respite from the relentless cycle of terrorism and political squabbles, but something about the Cullen trial caught the imagination. Most of the British newspapers covered the story, but so too did The New York Times, The Times of India and Arab News, a daily newspaper in Saudi Arabia. For most of these foreign outlets, it was clearly a tale of British eccentricity. Invariably, too, the reports mentioned in either the headline or the opening sentence that Cullen used to be a bodybuilder. The image of a muscle-bound hulk chasing a frail butterfly around with a child’s shrimping net was certainly a gift.
But, around the margins, among serious lepidopterists, another discussion was taking place. Butterfly collecting was widely thought to be a relic of a less civilised time: a hobby made obsolete in the 1960s by the