Our Projects
Two Heritage Horticultural Skills Scheme and Skills for the Future trainees working in Dyffryn Gardens

Case Study - Conserving the red-barbed ant in the UK 

Programme: Your Heritage 
Applicant: Zoological Society of London  
Grant awarded: £49,900 
Project length: December 2006 to December 2009 



Regarded as the rarest animal in Britain, the red-barbed ant (Formica rufibarbis) survives only on the Isles of Scilly and Chobham Common, Surrey.

Until 10 years ago it was found in nests across Surrey's heathland, but with the habitat becoming overgrown their numbers plummeted. Only one nest, which is all-female, remains on the British mainland and unless a number of new nests, some of which must be male, were introduced they would have become extinct. 

In 2006 a conservation programme was launched that recorded and managed the existing populations whilst creating a captivity bred population at London Zoo for release in the wild. Volunteers helped to monitor and manage the site and a range of interpretation materials, publicity events and courses raised awareness of the plight of the red-barbed ant. The project successfully released a total of 42 queens and their attendant workers into the wild.

The aims of the project

The three year project had four main aims:
  • to set up a red-barbed ant captive breeding facility at London Zoo;
  • to design and install display boards about red barbed ants at London Zoo and produce, and distribute project information leaflets to local schools and community groups;
  • to provide training workshops for volunteers and presentations to local schools; and
  • to use volunteers to carry out habitat management and reintroduce captive bred ants to the wild whilst monitoring their progress.

Benefits for heritage

  • A new red-barbed ant captive rearing and quarantine facility was set up at London Zoo in June 2007. Native queens were collected from the Isles of Scilly and brought to the facility for colony establishment. In total 42 queens and their attendant workers were released to supplement existing wild populations and three additional colonies in Chobham Common were discovered.
  • Previously little was known about this species but the project has allowed extensive genetic, behavioural and ecological studies to be completed.

Benefits for people

  • Over 30 volunteers learnt invaluable conservation skills such as habitat surveying, monitoring and management.
  • A range of courses were attended by 120 people.
    Two educational leaflets were produced to inform the public living in the Isles of Scilly and Surrey (including 26,000 Surrey Wildlife Trust members) about the red-barbed ant, the rarity of the heathland and the efforts being made to conserve the species.
  • Leaflets were also sent to local schools near Chobham Common with an accompanying invitation to receive a presentation about the project.
  • 50 volunteers attended turbary events at Chobham Common where they manually lifted turves to enhance habitat quality.
  • An interpretation display board was placed outside the captive breeding facility at London Zoo explaining the work being undertaken to conserve the endangered red-barbed ant. It is still accessible to over 1.1 million visitors to the Zoo each year, including around 100,000 school children. Two further interpretation boards were installed in Chobham Common, visited by 250,000 people a year, in the vicinity of the release sites.
  • The project successfully raised awareness and engaged with the public through extensive media coverage. Publicity events included the launch of the Insects UK Species in Recovery stamps series produced by the Royal Mail which featured amongst other species the red-barbed ant.

Lessons learnt

  • With such conservation projects it is very difficult to determine at the outset how the objectives will best be realised. For instance, unforeseen genetic research to establish how closely related the surviving Surrey wild colony is to both the Isles of Scilly and continental populations was required to ensure the project did not negatively impact the Isles of Scilly colonies.
  • Encouragingly insect stories tend to attract a lot of general public and media interest.
  • The cost of living and travelling to the Scilly Isles was expensive and the period of time required to stay on the islands to collect the ants was underestimated during proposal preparation. This meant additional budget had to be sourced from contingency funds.

Long term benefits

  • The project, the first of its kind for an ant species, has made great progress towards enabling one of our rarest insect species to have a chance of becoming successfully established on the UK mainland once again.
  • It has given us a better understanding of the needs of the red-barbed ant and the services they provide to the heathland ecosystem as a whole. This information will be invaluable for informing wider conservation efforts for this and other ant species.
  • The level of public awareness of this species and the issues associated with its decline has been very much enhanced and this looks set to continue with the long-term interpretation materials that have been put in place both on-site and online (Visit the Zoological Society of London website).

The budget

Main Project Costs
Repair and conservation
From organisation and other grants 2,473
Non Case Contributions 7,500
Consultancy/expert advice
HLF Grant (83%) 499,978
Other activity costs 6,800    
Total costs

Children releasing ants  

Releasing ants at Burnt Hill  


Land and Biodiversity