Switzerland’s valley of butterflies

The rugged, ancient landscape of Canton Valais is home to a variety of exquisite, endangered butterflies that draws lepidopterists from around the world.

I had not come to Valais, a rugged, ancient landscape that stretches along Switzerland’s Rhône River Valley, for its ski slopes or Matterhorn views, vertical vineyards or thermal baths. Instead, I was standing in the middle of a sunny mountain meadow with an insect net and a pocketful of glass tubes. Depending where I was in this bilingual canton, I was chasing either schmetterlinge or papillon. In other words: I was here for the butterflies.

Thanks partly to its arid, sunny climate, Valais (or “Wallis”, in German) is one of Europe’s largest butterfly habitats. It also is an area where a single mountain might be home to several different habitats – a rare find in the butterfly world. Two regions particularly popular with lepidopterists include the Simplon Pass, home to the elusive Rätzer’s ringlet; and the narrow Vispertal Valley, the only place in Switzerland where you can find the orange and brown Provençal fritillary.

Some of the most varied butterfly areas in the Valais, however, run along the spine of Switzerland’s röstigraben, the virtual line that separates the country’s German and French speaking regions. (Rösti is a fried potato dish loved by Swiss Germans – and scoffed at by Swiss French). This ancient cultural and linguistic equator cuts through the Naturpark Pfyn-Finges, a thickly wooded, foreboding steppe habitat that doubles as a natural border, attracting several types of butterfly, not to mention large lizards, African bird species such as the vibrant bee-eater and other creatures not typically associated with Alpine fauna. And if identifying butterflies among such diversity wasn’t difficult enough, the linguistic divide adds a challenge: both German and French species names are used here, which confuses even professionals. Luckily, as in the case of many natural history field studies, the Latin names are used for clarity.

The vineyard town of Salgesch, one of the last German-speaking villages before the French side begins, was an especially picturesque place to start my butterfly excursion. Dirt trails wound through the steep terraced vineyards planted with golden chasselas and Johannisberg grapes. I spotted five different species, including the himmelblauer bläuling, or what the French call azuré de la bugrane, a tiny delicate creature with ice-blue wings and a fanning pattern of orange ringlets along its hindwing.

Learning to identify butterflies requires some understanding of the flowering plants they frequent: when you look for a particular species, you often head for the plant with which it is associated. A pink spray of larkspur across the road held a gossamer Apollo butterfly with signature red-eye wing marks. I also encountered a variety of moths with intricate patterns so nuanced that even experts struggle to categorise them. There are 195 species of butterflies in Switzerland – and tens of thousands of moth species, many of them diurnal.

After a day of butterflying, I headed for dinner. At Restaurant Soleil (Schafgasse 2, Salgesch; 027-455-1427), I sampled a local rosé called Dôle Blanche and dipped schnapps-soaked local apricots into a fondue made with pungent Vacherin cheese. Salgesch’s new Wine Sensorium is an excellent place to learn more about the unique local varietals – such as the heida and chasselas whites, known for their mineral, almost gunpowder-like flavours. Salgesch is also home to Naturpark Pfyn-Finges Visitor’s Centre, whose spacious interactive museum invites guests to learn more about the park’s flora and fauna. It hosts regular meet-ups, lectures and hikes dedicated to insects, birds and wildflowers, and can arrange lepidopterist guides to accompany butterfly-seekers.

Butterflying here is not new. Enthusiasts have been flocking to Valais’ meadows for decades. Vladimir Nabakov was one such papillon pilgrim. As well as the famed author of Lolita, Nabakov, who lived in the town of Montreux in the neighbouring canton of Vaud from 1961 to 1977, was an accomplished lepidopterist and wrote extensively about Valais’ butterflies. “The highest enjoyment of timelessness is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love: a sense of oneness with sun and stone,” he wrote in his memoir Speak, Memory. On a Valais butterfly excursion in 1975, Nabokov slipped on the rocky trail and had to be carried down the mountain on a stretcher; the episode marked the beginning of his health’s decline and he eventually died in 1977. His cremated remains are buried in Montreux’s Cimetière de Clarens.

Today, however, 60% of Switzerland's 195 indigenous butterfly species are considered near threatened or endangered, and 52 are on Switzerland’s IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. But through the cooperation of local farmers, vineyard owners and conservationists, Valais is becoming a sanctuary for these highly endangered insects. And visitors are encouraged to participate: Pro Natura and Butterfly Conservation Switzerland have developed programmes to plant butterfly-friendly flowers at public schools and parks.

On my next excursion, my guide Dr Remo Wegner, a biologist from the Aletsch region in eastern Valais, took me to the remote Vispertal valley, the only valley in Switzerland where the Valaisian subspecies of the Provençal fritillary, Melitaea deione, can be found. Like most modern butterfly hikes, our excursion involved catch-and-release identifying: we temporarily encapsulated the unharmed butterflies in specimen tubes, identified them and released them 10 or 15 minutes later. At the end of our four-hour hike, Remo pounced into a dense roadside thicket to catch a scarce swallowtail, a butterfly noted for its brilliant blue and gold tail whose design mimics the head of a distasteful insect to ward off predators.

Valais may be known for its massive mountains and glaciers. But those attractions can overshadow what may be the canton’s alluring secret: its plethora of tiny creatures with colourful wings, elaborate patterns and an enduring sense of fragility.

Those coming to Valais to butterfly can bunk in a luxury mountain resort, like the Fletschorn, a cosy Relais & Chateaux property in the car-free village of Saas-Fee. However, the valleys are more affordable, and often convenient, bases for butterfly exploring. The Hotel Salina Maris, located near the base of the Aletsch Glacier cable car, arranges extensive butterfly and bird hikes. It also is home to Switzerland’s only saltwater bath, fed from naturally thermal water and salt drawn from deep subterranean sources. As well as being the ideal place to soak after a day’s hike, it attracts butterflies that come to feed on the salt, making the wildflower-covered hillsides around the hotel famous for their colourful species.