Butterflies

There’s something about butterflies that I have always loved.  Ever since I was a teenager, I have been interested in butterflies, and I tried, often unsuccessfully, to photograph them in their natural habitat.  I was lucky enough to live near Box Hill in Surrey, where many of the UK species are found.  With that abundance, you get spoiled, and forget just how precarious and tenuous the hold is for many of our native butterflies.  Moving to the Staffordshire/Warwickshire border has made me much more aware of butterflies thanks to their relative scarcity when compared with leafy Surrey.

Many butterflies, with their complex life cycle, rely on the presence of a whole habitat, rather than the presence of one plant.  Nectar-producing plants that we put into our gardens to attract colourful butterflies such as Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, Small Tortoiseshell and Painted Lady are only part of the story, important though they are.  Key to the survival of butterflies are the often less-glamorous foodplants onto which their eggs are laid, and on which their caterpillars feed.  These plants are often not very showy, seen as weeds, and even tided up to make verges and hedgerows tidier.

Green-veined white

At Alvecote Wood we have been trying to help butterflies over the past four years, not just by providing plants with abundant nectar (although these occur naturally in large amounts, particularly bramble flowers), but also by providing foodplants.  Establishing foodplants on ground already colonised by grasses is not easy, but we have had some success in establishing them on areas disturbed by pond-digging, track-construction and other activities that bring subsoil to the surface, since many of these plants thrive on soil with lower levels of fertility.

Butterfly Conservation have also recently visited and given us some advice on what we can do to attract other species, in particular those that are close to us, but which haven’t yet made it to Alvecote Wood.  These include Brown Argus and Dingy Skippers.

Jack by the hedge

This week’s abundance of butterflies has given us some encouragement.  So far this Spring we have welcomed Brimstone, Small White, Large White, Orange Tip, Green-veined White, Holly Blue, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Speckled Wood and Peacock to our woods.  This week saw the first of the Small Copper butterflies in Betty’s Wood.  Last year we welcomed Common Blues for the first time, along with an abundance of Ringlet, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Small and Large Skippers and the wonderful Purple Hairstreak.

Betty’s Wood has provided the opportunity to put in foodplants for a number of species, including the Brown Argus.  And not just meadow flowers, but trees too – alder, black poplar and others.  And we will add Alder buckthorn this winter for brimstone butterflies.

 
As well as their beauty, butterflies are an indicator of the overall diversity and health of the ecosystem on which they live.  We hope that we can improve things for local butterflies, allow them to spread from other locations, and thus to reduce their vulnerability to habitat change or loss.  Common and taken for granted until we notice their absence, butteflies need all the help they can get.  And when I see the first of a particular species in a year, I certainly get butterflies in my stomach.

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