Livestock Grazing’s Role in Preserving Apollo’s Habitat

By Vlado Vancura

Domestic grazers, like livestock, might seem to be an unexpected ally for Apollo butterflies. Their role in creating a suitable habitat for this butterfly is fascinating. When the livestock graze, they systematically remove the emerging sprouts of trees and shrubs. That is their way how maintaining an open landscape. It is a process that helps to diversify meadows and preserves the open landscape that P. apollo thrive.

In the past, the role of creating suitable habitats, not only for Apollo butterflies but also for various other insects, was primarily fulfilled by native grazers like red deer, roe deer, wild goats, wild horses, European bison, or also the extinct auroch. These wild herbivores played a crucial part in shaping the landscape through their feeding behavior, preventing excessive growth of shrubs and trees. The unintentional impact of these grazers resulted in the removal of growing shrubs and young trees, maintaining open spaces. These open spaces allowed sunlight to reach the ground, establishing and sustaining the specific conditions vital for the life of Parnasius apollo. Simultaneously, this natural process diversified plant life, offering a variety of nectar sources for butterflies and host plants for their larvae.

Today, domestic animals such as cows, sheep, goats, and horses play a comparable function in habitat preservation to native grazers. The grazing actions of these domestic grazers help to create open spaces and allow sunlight to reach the ground. As a result, domestic grazers actively encourage the growth of a wide range of plant species that serve as nectar supplies for adult butterflies (imagines) and host plants for larvae. With careful management, domestic grazers can become collaborative partners in biodiversity conservation. This example vividly demonstrates how human actions, when coordinated with natural rhythms, can considerably benefit the well-being of P. apollo butteflies.

Grazing behaviours varies among domestic grazers. Sheep carefully nibble close to the ground, resulting in properly groomed areas.  As browsers, goats extend their reach to shrub leaves and twigs, causing vegetation to change structure. Cattle use a sweeping grazing motion to impact bigger areas.  Each species makes a distinctive contribution to the shaping of environment. Understanding and applying the various grazing habits of numerous domestic grazers allows us to build a balance that closely matches natural processes and in which also Apollo butterflies can thrive.

Today, the thriving habitat of the Parnassius Apollo, encompassing alpine and subalpine grasslands, dry calcareous grasslands, and slopes in upland areas, faces a threat from uncontrolled vegetation overgrowth. The delicate balance crucial for supporting the unique flora essential to the butterfly’s life cycle depends on well-maintained open spaces. Ensuring stable Apollo populations necessitates a habitat that provides both food plants for the larvae and nectareous plants for the adults. Domestic pastures provide as a safeguard, preventing spontaneous overgrowth, which happens quickly when grazing is reduced or stopped. Strategic grazing management, particularly with the help of goats, proves effective in reducing the vegetation growth and protecting a vital environment for the Parnassius apollo.

This demonstrates how coordinated conservation efforts, particularly through effective domestic animal grazing management, can be realised. When faced with the difficulty of protecting important open spaces, incorporating grazing practices emerges as a viable solution to ensure Parnassius apollo’s existence. It provides a compelling model for harmonious interaction with the environment while preserving the captivating world of these butterflies.

How dogs assist in the detection of Apollo caterpillars

People discovered the sensitivity of a dog’s nose thousands of years ago, initially using it for hunting. Fast forward to present, and these animals have evolved into valuable members of our society, serving in police, customs, military, and rescue missions. Dogs have an incredible sense of smell that is a million times more sensitive than ours. It is related to the numerous scent receptors in their noses and the highly developed nasal processing centers in their brains. Dogs not only use their noses to detect scents, but they can also differentiate between various odours with amazing accuracy. 

Thanks to that, dogs have become indispensable in research and conservation projects over the last 30 years. These sniffer dogs have been trained for a variety of tasks ranging from tracking wolves, lynx, wildcats, or bats to identifying carcasses (dead bodies), litter, and even targeting small insects. The possibilities are almost limitless, as long as the target object emits a smell, dogs can track it down. While this type of use of dog is common in the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the use of nature or species protection dogs remains relatively unknown in Europe. 

And #LIFEApollo2020 is proud to be one of these scientific projects!

What: Our focus is on collecting data about Parnassius apollo with detection dogs playing a key role in mapping caterpillar population across selected sites. These dogs ensure precise and non-invasive data collection by identifying unique odors associated with Apollo caterpillars and their habitats.

How: Dogs undergo a special training, that teaches them to recognize the unique odors associated with Apollo caterpillars. At first, the dog sniffs the live caterpillars and gets a treat for it. Then, tea bags scented with the caterpillar odor are introduced as a game element. The dog learns to associate finding the tea bags with getting a reward. As the training progresses, the dog practices in different places to get better at identifying the caterpillar scent. This simple but effective method helps the dog find the Apollo butterfly caterpillar in the wild.

When: Fieldwork usually takes place from March/April to June, when the caterpillars hatch from the eggs and crawl around. 

Why: Dogs with their great sense of smell easily overtake humans in finding and detecting targets. The caterpillar monitoring, facilitated by the human-dog team guides us in conservation efforts, allowing us to make informed decisions on preserving this endangered species in its natural habitat.

Training on the Apollo butterfly monitoring in Pieniny Mountains

As a part of the field monitoring training from July 19th to 20th, representatives from the Naturalist’s Club, Karkonosze National Park, and the Władysław Szafer Institute of Botany of the Polish Academy of Sciences visited the habitats of the local population of Apollo butterflies . It was possible thanks to the hospitality of Pieniny National Park.

Under the guidance of specialist Prof. Paweł Adamski form Polish Academy of Sciences, we learned how to properly conduct species monitoring in the field, how to spot and mark Apollo butterflies, and how to accurately record monitoring data.

Together with Prof. Adamski, we visited three key monitoring sites for the Apollo butterfly. This allowed us to observe and experience working in challenging habitats associated with steep mountain slopes.

During the training, we gained valuable insights into the habitats of the Pieniny population. We further enriched this knowledge during visits to two different habitats while being guided by representatives of Pieniny National Park.

As part of Pieniny National Park’s warm hospitality, we learned about the history of Czorsztyn Castle and the basics of oscypek production (a traditional Polish scalded-smoked cheese with a protected-designation-of-origin status) in traditional shepherd’s hut. Conversations and exchange of experiences related to Apollo butterfly breeding were also an integral part of the visit.

Mr. Tadeusz Oleś, the long-term guardian of the butterfly population and breeding success, shared insights about the population and breeding achievements. Experience exchange always brings surprises and fosters the search for common solutions to ensure the species’ safety and continuity.

The training itself, in such picturesque natural surroundings resultd in a lasting significance for collaboration and brought numerous benefits to breeders. It equipped them with a more confident approach to this year’s and future years’ monitoring efforts.


We would like to thank the Pieniny National Park for hosting us with warmth and the commitment of your employees. This allowed us, the LIFE Apollo2020 team, to be guests of the magnificent Pieniny National Park.

Our heartfelt thanks go to the Park’s Director, Mr. Michał Sokołowski, and Ms. Iwona Wróbel for their kindness and for making it possible to orgainze the visit. We deeply appreciate Mr. Bogusław Kozik, Mr. Jacek Berezicki, Mr. Paweł Adamski, Ms. Małgorzata Braun-Suchojad, Mr. Stanisław Złydaszyk, and Mr. Mateusz Dziurny for discussions on Apollo butterfly protection, reintroduction, and monitoring details. Special thanks to Mr. Tadeusz Oleś for guiding us through the breeding facility.