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Hiking in the Alps undergoes metamorphosis

A small tortoiseshell alights on a milkwort flower

(Keystone)

In a rare display of cooperation, environmentalists and tourist officials have joined forces to create Switzerland's first butterfly trail.

The idea took wing when the people of Lungern in canton Obwalden discovered that about 100 butterfly varieties make their home in the mountain meadows above the town.

It is best to set out on the trail on the morning of a promising summer's day when the alpine meadows on the eastward facing slope are bathed in sunlight.

This is the ideal time to watch the clouded yellows, red admirals and tortoiseshells (pictured) flirt among the wild flowers.

There are about 200 butterfly species native to Switzerland and half of them are drawn to the rich flora found here.

Conservation

But the butterflies are simply a by-product of a successful project to conserve the alpine meadows above Lungern, which local farmers had abandoned.

About ten years ago, members of various interest groups in the region got together and worked out an environmental action plan to cultivate the unused meadows.

Their idea received financial backing from the Swiss Landscape Fund whose aim is to "conserve, care and restore endangered cultivated landscapes and semi-natural habitats".

The fund believes that traditional farming methods ensure the land is cultivated ecologically, with the end result being greater biodiversity.

Orchids and lilies

Since the farmers returned to graze their cattle on the meadows and reap the hay, more than 70 different wildflowers have been counted in a single 100 square metre area - yellow milkwort, golden hawksbird, pink orchids and violet lilies among them.

With the wildflowers come bees, grasshoppers, spiders - and of course - butterflies.

The area also has both dry- and wet eco-systems, including moors, which also account for the biodiversity.

When the project leaders discovered that they had contributed to the area becoming the richest habitat for butterflies in Switzerland, the idea for the trail was born.

The local cable car company, which does most of its business in the ski season, was only too happy to get involved since the theme trail promised to become a sorely needed summer attraction.

When it opened a year ago, the company took on a leading role to promote it.

Guide and map

Hikers can purchase an informative guide (German only) and map, and the trail is well marked with information boards set up along the way.

The trail starts near the upper cable car station at nearly 1,800 metres above sea level, then criss-crosses the mountainside while slowly descending to the valley floor.

Stunning views across to the Bernese Alps can be had from the upper reaches before the trail passes through a patchwork of forests and meadows.

The slope is so steep in parts that the fields of wildflowers rise vertically above the path.

The difficult terrain presents no obstacle for the brightly coloured butterflies though, which dart in and out of the flowers, often descending like paragliders to reach the meadows further below.

Common blues

Swarms of common blues are drawn like bees to honey to parts of the track muddied by cattle.

The tiny butterflies suck the minerals out of the mud, which give their wings a bright blue colouring.

A disused farmer's hut located half way down the trail is in the process of being converted into a butterfly information centre.

This is also where hikers can also fill up their water bottles at a fountain, before continuing their journey of discovery.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Lungern

Butterflies

Half of the 200 butterfly species native to Switzerland are found on the alpine meadows above Lungern.
The butterfly trail is divided into two sections: one lasting almost two-and-a-half hours, the other four hours.
There are hotels in Lungern and at the top of the Schönbüel Mountain where the butterfly path, and other mountain trails begin.
The trail can be also be done as a day trip from Lucerne, or the Bernese Oberland resorts of Interlaken and Meiringen.
Lungern is on the railway line connecting Lucerne with the Bernese Oberland via the Brünig Pass.

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