Eltham Copper Butterfly


The area around Eltham supports the largest of the few remaining populations of the threatened Eltham Copper Butterfly (ECB) in Victoria.

It was first discovered around Eltham in 1938 and was thought to have become extinct around the 1950’s.

Following the rediscovery of the butterfly in the Eltham area in 1987, the ECB was listed as threatened under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act (1988) in May 1991. 

Biology and distribution

The Eltham Copper Butterfly is a small and attractive butterfly with bright copper colouring on the tops of its wings visible during the summer flight season.

  • It is an unusual species due to its close symbiotic association with a group of ants from the genus Notoncus and the shrub Sweet Bursaria (Bursaria spinosa). 
  • Adult butterflies lay their eggs on the roots and stems of Sweet Bursaria. Once the eggs hatch, the ants guard the caterpillars (providing protection from predators) ushering the larvae to and from the ant nest at the base of the shrub, to feed on the Sweet Bursaria leaves at night.  In return the ants feed on the sugar secretions exuded from the body of the caterpillar.
  • The butterfly has a preference for open flight paths and receiving direct sunlight; vegetation with an open middle and under storey.

Butterfly locations

The Eltham Copper Butterfly is known only to occur in Victoria and only recorded at a few geographically separate locations including:

• Ten sites in the Eltham-Greensborough area
• Three separate small populations in the Kiata-Salisbury area in the Wimmera.
• Three sites in the Bendigo region in rural Victoria.
• Small populations at two sites at Castlemaine in rural Victoria

In the Eltham area, Nillumbik Shire Council own and manage six bushland reserves for the conservation of the Eltham Copper Butterfly, these include:

• Western Eltham Copper Butterfly Reserve
• Eastern Eltham Copper Butterfly Reserve
• Diosma Road Reserve
• Woodridge Linear Reserve (Lahelam Court)
• Pitt Street Environmental Reserve
• Hohnes Hill Environmental Reserve

Parks Victoria owns and manages the Pauline Toner Eltham Copper Butterfly Reserve in Eltham, and populations of the Eltham Copper Butterfly occur on at least two known private properties in the Eltham area.

Decline of the Butterfly

The Eltham Copper Butterfly was listed as a threatened taxon in Schedule 2 of the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 in 1991. 

It is now classified as Endangered under the DSE Advisory List of Threatened Invertebrate Fauna in Victoria 2009. 

Major causes of the decline

  • The destruction and loss of habitat
  • Urbanisation and associated human activity such as weed invasion, rubbish dumping, trampling, slashing and clearing of vegetation and wildfires. 
  • Agricultural production

Remaining populations in the Eltham area are disparate and occur in small reserves across the urban landscape. 

Annual Eltham Butterfly counts

  • Friends of the Eltham Copper Butterfly in partnership with Nillumbik Shire Council and the Eltham Copper Butterfly Working Group have been undertaking annual caterpillar and adult butterfly counts since 1993

  • Larval counts are useful and can be potentially used as an early indicator of population development and general population health

  • The numbers fluctuate each year. Compared to the 2017 spring survey, the 2018 survey found that larvae populations and distribution have mostly increased in number and area

  • The 2018 survey found all of the reserves managed by Council (Western Colony, Eastern Colony, Pitt Street Reserve and Laleham Court Reserve) and Parks Victoria (Pauline Toner) continue to respond well to the ongoing management program.

  • Annual surveys have continued to be undertaken – most recently without volunteer support due to Covid restrictions

  • The annual Eltham Copper Butterfly (ECB) caterpillar count will be on again next October and will be taking place at various ECB bushland reserves in Eltham.


The conservation effort

The conservation effort of the Eltham Copper Butterfly populations has a long history.

Following it’s rediscovery in 1987 and in the face of the then proposed urban development on Diosma Road in Eltham, the local community successfully lobbied and fundraised for the reservation of the

  • Western and Eastern Eltham Copper Butterfly colonies and
  • Pauline Toner Reserve, now owned by Parks Victoria

Early conservation work 

Early work undertaken by the local community to protect the Eltham Copper Butterfly and its habitat is embedded in the social, cultural and natural heritage and identity of the Eltham community.

Over the past twenty-five years there have been sustained investments of time and money to maintain and conserve the populations and supporting eco-system.

This has been a cooperative effort of land managers, Friends Groups, and the Eltham Copper Butterfly Working Group.

In 2010 with support from Nillumbik Shire Council the Friends of the Eltham Copper Butterfly, the Friends of Diosma Road and the Friends of Woodridge Linear Reserve received a joint community grant from the Port Phillip and Westernport Catchment Management Authority to develop and implement a community engagement program with the primary aim of renewing local community support for the conservation of the butterfly and its habitat:

Through this funding an extensive community engagement program was developed and implemented to increase awareness and appreciation of the conservation of the Eltham Copper Butterfly within the local Eltham community.

The program also included capacity building activities specifically developed to benefit the three friends of groups involved in the project. 

In addition, weed infestations and garden encroachments into the reserves were identified and addressed as a main threat to the habitat of the Eltham Copper Butterfly.

Grant to protect and enhance habitat

In 2012, the Friends of the Eltham Copper Butterfly in partnership with Nillumbik Shire Council, Parks Victoria, the Friends of Diosma Road, the Friends of Woodridge Linear Reserve and Eltham East Primary School received a Communities for Nature grant of $459,000 from the Department of Sustainability and Environment, to protect and enhance the habitat of the Eltham Copper Butterfly. 

Grant objectives

  • Optimise the habitat requirements and conditions of the Eltham Copper Butterfly across the ten sites
  • Support sustainable populations of other rare and threatened species found within the Eltham Copper Butterfly sites as well the Eltham Copper Butterfly itself.
  • Increase the resilience of the Eltham Copper Butterfly sites to weed invasion and other threats.
  • Protect and enhance the ecosystem services (social, economic, cultural and heritage values) provided by the Eltham Copper Butterfly sites
  • Coordinate weed control across property boundaries.
  • Increase community participation and involvement in the protection of the Eltham Copper Butterfly. How can you help?

Interested in the conservation of the butterfly?

Join the Friends of the Eltham Copper Butterfly or contact Wayne Kinrade on 9439 1482 or via email at waynekinrade@hma.com.au

You can record your butterfly sightings and assist with the ID of butterflies via this free app, recently launched by Butterfies Australia.