Butterfly World closure: last flight for much-loved venue

Butterfly World's gates

Butterfly World's gates - Credit: Archant

Sadness and shock have greeted the sudden announcement of the closure of St Albans’ conservation attraction, Butterfly World, six years after it opened.

Seven permanent staff members face redundancy while a new home is being sought for the pioneering conservation project’s leaf cutter ant colony, the largest in the country.

Employees have already started winding down the site and returning property, equipment and tools to people who have lent or donated them.

Sally Cornish, marketing and administration manager of the project which is based on a 27-acre Green Belt site off Noke Lane in Chiswell Green, said: “The staff are all devastated. We are the second most visited attraction in St Albans after the Cathedral, and there isn’t any place like us in the country.”

Days after the Herts Advertiser broke news of the closure online last Friday, an official statement was released by Butterfly World’s owners, Ipswich-based civil engineering firm J Breheny Contractors.

Chairman John Breheny said it was with ‘immense regret’ that the Butterfly World project would be closing from the end of the 2015 season.

“Since its inception in 2009, Butterfly World has made a succession of trading losses, despite the very best and exceptional efforts of its dedicated team of staff and volunteers in improving the visitor experience and driving visitor numbers up, year on year.”

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John said that it had fallen victim to being a seasonal visitor attraction and that hopes of turning around cumulative trading losses by finding funding for the long-promised biome had failed to come to fruition.

During the summer seasons, Butterfly World employed 43 people, supported by a team of over 50 volunteers who worked in the gardens as tour guides and photographers.

Ironically, 2015 was its most successful yet, with 120,000 visitors over the eight-month season.

But John said that Breheny had “twice rescued the project from insolvency and certain closure”.

The engineering firm had ‘finite resources’ and without the prospect of a viable biome could no longer expect Breheny employees to fund the project indefinitely.

The adjoining Royal National Rose Society (RNRS) currently shares parking with Butterfly World. Chief executive Roz Hamilton said this week that parking was secure for the 2016 season and the charity was working closely with Breheny to secure the long-term parking future.

Malcolm Hull, chairman of Herts and Middlesex Butterfly Conservation said the closure was “really sad news” as the organisation had supported the project from the outset, contributing financially and with many volunteer hours.

He added: “It will be a big loss in terms of amenities for local people, educational work with young people and tourism for the area.

“For us, the biggest issue is the potential loss of what’s become a very valuable wildlife site for native butterflies, moths, plants and other wildlife. I don’t know yet what the future holds for the site, but I am concerned.”

Vicky La Trobe, chair of St Albans Visitor Partnership, said: “The closure of Butterfly World is very saddening indeed. As well as being a pioneering conservation project, it was a much valued local attraction drawing visitors of all ages from all over the country.

“I understand that this summer was its most successful to date, attracting 120,000 visitors, so it is such a shame to hear that it is closing. It has been popular with the national press too, appearing in top 10 lists of the best family attractions in the UK, a strong indication of what a fantastic attraction it is.”

Portfolio holder for leisure and heritage, Cllr Annie Brewster, said: ““This news is both devastating and a complete shock. This is so sad for St Albans. I understand Butterfly World’s School visits are fully booked for next year and they have just had their most successful season ever with over 120,000 visitors.

“This is very impressive considering, without their planned spectacular Biome, the attraction can only offer seasonal opening. The passion and professionalism displayed by its staff and army of committed volunteers has been a joy to witness. One wonders if there is a butterfly loving philanthropist out there who could save this most fabulous pioneering conservation project.”