When most of us think of butterflies, images of the highly patterned and brightly coloured Peacock, Tortoiseshell, Painted Lady and Red Admiral (the latter two are actually Migrants, arriving in Spring from as far south as north Africa) are usually the first to come to mind and with these being regular garden visitors in Spring, Summer and early Autumn they are likely to be the butterflies with which we are most familiar. It would, however, be unwise to overlook the great and varied array of butterflies taking to our skies in the wider countryside at this time of year. There are 59 regular species of butterfly in the UK (rare migrants and occasional visitors can extend this number somewhat) and whilst many may lack bold, brash and surreal colour; all of them possess finite detail and an intrinsic beauty rarely matched in natural world. In fact many of our scarcer, hard-to-find species are often the most subtle in design but that doesn’t matter; ‘understated’ and ‘classy’ can be just as sublime as the surreal.
Two miles south of the edgeland, the gated road around Peatling Magna, the private lake and onwards to Arnesby village is a bit of a hotspot for butterflies with a mix of still water, river, woodland rides, ancient hedgerows, damp pasture and meadow making the perfect habitat for a whole wealth of species. With the sun beating down in an almost cloudless sky and only the gentlest of breezes, Sunday just passed seemed to be the perfect day to find some fresh Spring butterflies on the wing and I wasn’t left disappointed.
As soon as we stepped beyond the gate we were presented with flutters of crisp linen-white, bounding along the lush undergrowth that spreads three metres deep and a meter tall along the roadside banks now speckled with colour from the blooms of Bluebells, Deadnettle, Cow parsley, Celandine and Dandelions. Dancing from plant to plant and grazing the hedges, the sun bounced from the continual flutter of delicate porcelain wings, tips ink-dipped in deep terracotta-orange. It is the male Orange-tip Butterfly that bares fruit to the name; the females instead all white, save for charcoal dusted wing-tips and a lone black spot on each forewing. I could tell these were Orange-tips before the tips were even visible, their sporadic, almost chaotic and pathless flight and outright refusal to perch is a dead giveaway.
These butterflies are notoriously difficult to photograph for pause is brief; I note photographers jumping for joy having finally captured that golden image only after three season trying and even that’s not bad going. Their lack of pause is a shame, for the mottled jungle-green underwing of both sexes is an absolute delight (see leading picture, above) and in my view one of the finest colorations of all our native butterflies; understated, delicate and yet so striking, it is the perfect camouflage amongst the lush green growth and frothy white flowers of Spring, a perfect mimic of the idyllic, whimsical Spring hedgerow so often portrayed in literature.
On the opposite bank, the shallow, flighty wingbeats of a female Holly Blue emerged from the hedgerow and like a feather, fell gently to the petals of a Buttercup where it came to rest, wings folded upright. This tiny little butterfly is a real treasure; all of the Blue Butterflies tend to capture the imagination of butterfly enthusiast in the UK though none are quite as spectacular as the Adonis Blue (An Electric blue species which unfortunately for me is the reserve of discrete colonies on sites of chalk downland) but with Blue being such a rare colour in the natural world, it is easy to see the attraction. Like the Orange-tip the Holly Blue is sexually dimorphic; the male is almost entirely blue on the upper side whilst the female has dusky brown wing tips which makes them easy to sex. In fact, in most of the ‘blue’ species in this country the females are mainly brown with only the faintest hint of blue; in that respect, the female Holly Blue is quite the exception.
Due to their diminutive size, the Holly Blue is often overlooked but there is no escaping this resting little beauty. The undersides of her wings flash silver in the sunlight as she slowly begins to twitch and flicker them open, warming them in readiness for take-off. As I try to get a little closer, with a flutter she floats skywards and ambles beyond the hedge-line and out of view. This isn’t the first Holly Blue I’ve seen this year; I spent ten minutes a few weekends ago watching a freshly emerged male flit hungrily from daisy to daisy across my lawn. It’s a good sign as they are renowned for fluctuating wildly in numbers, forming a predictable cycle over a number of years thought to be caused by parasitism from the wasp Listrodomus nycthemerus whose sole host is the Holly Blue. I can’t remember seeing a single one last year.
Around the bend and over the beck, a small copse of Birch woodland surrounds the south-side of the lake. The beck snakes back in alongside the copse and forms a small inlet, a no man’s land of wild grasses and nettles with overhanging Willow and Hawthorn. It is here that we find a handful of Small White butterflies navigating the various new Nettle, Deadnettle and Herb Robert blooms. From afar they could easily be mistaken for Orange-tips, most white butterflies tend to look extremely similar when in flight a way off, but their more flighty, relaxed demeanour can be a good clue. Having said that, none were willing to settle instead bounding from flower to flower enjoying the all-you-can-eat nectar buffet. Occasionally two would come together above the same plant and twirl tornado-like skywards, each rapidly twisting around the other as they trailed off skyward before parting and floating back down to the greenery in different directions. You might be excused for believing that the Whites are a little drab, especially the Small White and Large White; the only discernible markings a lone or double black eye spot on the forewing, charcoal wing-tips and the distinctive black thorax and abdomen.
What these Small White butterflies certainly are not, is ‘Cabbage Whites’. The Small and Large white butterflies are often bundled together with this rather clumsy name; the fact is, there is no ‘Cabbage White’. It is a term pencilled by outraged allotment holders to describe the ‘pest’ feeding on their Brassicas. Of the two, it is the larvae of the Large White that are usually to blame for ravaging a Cabbage crop, so the Small White gets a bit of a raw deal. I find it difficult to consider any butterfly a ‘pest’ though I acknowledge the damage they can cause. Preventative measures at least mean that we can still enjoy the adult butterflies who’s diet extends beyond purely cabbage, rather than tackling the problem with pesticides. Live and let live.
Further up the track, over the crest of a hill that dips sharply into a small valley before rising again towards Arnesby, another arm of the beck that feeds the river Sence meanders its way through the farmland, beneath the road and out into the open, ancient pasture that runs alongside the right-hand side of the road, un-hedged. Only north of the beck is the pasture ever grazed and by just a handful of sheep, the rest is left open, natural and untended. Meadow and Creeping Buttercup, Dandelion and Celandine have begun to turn the whole of the south side yellow and by mid-May the sunshine-blooms are so thick a carpet that it would be conceivable to believe there was no grass beneath the golden mat at all. Dotted amongst the yellow, large striking clumps of Dame’s-violet are already in full bloom, they have invaded the roadside and ditches too. Clusters of small white and lilac flowers sway serenely in the breeze and implant within the air their sweet, floral scent. In a good year they can flower right through to August on stems reaching a good metre in height but these early blooms, so fresh and heady area real treat on a warm Spring day.
Alongside this patch of meadow runs one of the oldest hedges in the area, a mix of Blackthorn, Hawthorn and Alder Buckthorn; the latter becoming increasingly uncommon. Buckthorn is the larval food plant of the Brimstone butterfly and wherever you find Buckthorn, you will find Brimstones. Right on cue, two break from the hedge some distance away and follow one another along the embankment. These large, pastel yellow butterflies are often the first to be seen in Spring, some appearing (if temperatures allow) in January and February. They look their best when seen in flight as it is only then that you may glimpse the zesty, pale lemon upper wing; a lovely sight in early Spring when all is still brown and drab, their brightness is pre-emptive of the early Spring flowers to come, a hint of the growing palette of Spring. When at rest, the Brimstone holds its wings tightly closed and rarely will they spread them (In fact, I can’t recall ever seeing a Brimstone at rest with wings unfurled) which leaves us gazing longingly at the more sedate, pale green-yellow underwing.
Further up the embankment, the opposite is true. A number of white Butterflies making the most of the Dandelions at the roadside catch my eye. A group of Green-veined White butterflies; Britain’s most common. From above, they are difficult to differentiate from the Small White, especially to the uninitiated. Despite being so common, I suspect the casual observer, or those less interested, are unfamiliar with the name, again assuming that the ‘Whites’ are all just that.
Unlike the Brimstone, it is when the Green-veined White has its wings closed that we see the beauty element and the reason for it’s name. Luckily, they are one of the more obliging butterflies to observe at close quarters and as I approach them they perch well, if briefly, every few moments or so. With wings closed, green veins divide the underwing into rhythmic stained-glass like sections of satin and pea-green. Each thin vein bleeding slightly a thick border of dark forest-green ink into the surrounding space like the veins on the underside of a leaf. Another display of perfect mimicry and camouflage.
Where the road opens up at the Arnesby end, the banks splay into wide grass verges each flanked with thick nettle patches. With the hedges receding these nettle thickets are cast in full sunshine for much of the day and make the perfect spot for a butterfly to bathe and warm its flight muscles in relative safety. My wife immediately noticed yet another species of butterfly, wings spread table-flat soaking up the early afternoon heat. The Comma perched obligingly, the light reflecting from each scale and highlighting the intricate dot-work. This particular one looked as fresh as I’ve seen and given the position I assume that it had emerged from its cocoon only that morning, clambered to the nettle-tops and lapped-up the sun as it slowly pumped up crinkled new wings.
Rich sun-burst oranges and browns are interspersed with dark mottling and dots while the bordered edge is reversed with deep rust-brown fringe and copper spots. The Comma is one of the most easy to identify with trademark deeply arched and jagged outer edges. With wings open, at the base are two long swallow-tail tips at the end of each arch. With wings closed, this distinctive edge resembles a withered leaf and is quite possible one of the finest acts of camouflage of all our butterflies, simply sinking into the leaf litter as if it wasn’t there. Despite this distinctive shape, the Comma actually takes its name from the only white markings on its entire being; two tiny comma-shaped markings on its underwing. Unfortunately, given the jagged nature of the wings, they wear quickly and within as little as a few days they can lose some of the finer detail and finesse.
Heading back the way we came, as we reach the scrubby inlet by the lake we divert from the road and cross a footbridge over the beck and out the other side into some damp pasture. The fields here are grazed by sheep but with a deep ridge running through the middle before rising to the churchyard, it can become waterlogged, attacked both by rain and flooding from the beck. It makes the grassland here quite different from the rest of the site, rich and green almost year round. The flora is different too. Reaching up from the grass, the field is studded pink with the delicate blooms of Cuckooflower, a common plant but a damp specialist. It’s clear that the wildflowers around this entire site, along the roadside and in the fields are vital for the array of butterfly life here.
With the lake open on this side, the river, the damp pasture and the humidity that gathers in this shallow valley thanks to the gently rising hill to the churchyard, it is a mecca for all manner of insects, gnats and flies. We were pleased to see the first Swallows of the year (an ever-present in frankly huge numbers here between May and September) making the most of the aerial buffet. At the top of the incline a small gate makes entry into the churchyard which is well-managed with areas of long grass and wildflowers left to thrive whilst still maintaining a pleasant, tidy and usable space. Benches here provide the perfect resting stop with stunning panoramic views over the lake, the path and the hills from where we came. (The manor house alongside the churchyard, to whom the lake belongs also has lovely open gardens as well as a walled garden to the rear, well worth sneaking a peek!). After some time taking in the view and lapping up the whirling chirruping and chirping of the Swallows and the mimic calls of starlings nesting in the church roof, we left via the back of the churchyard which brought us back out onto the path photographed above.
Another path, similarly lined with hedge and wildflowers runs perpendicular and back out into the village and it was here, resting amongst the bluebells amongst the fragmented light cast by the overhanging trees that we found our final butterfly of the day. The Speckled wood is a common butterfly, somewhat monochrome with various shades of brown and cream this species highlights how beauty does not have to be synonymous with marauding colour. This butterfly changes in appearance depending on where you are in the Country too; further north, the Speckled-wood tends to be Dark-chocolate brown with cream-white spots whilst further south those spots appear more rust-Orange. Single black eye-spots are sported near the tip of each forewing with a row of three at the base of each hindwing. The outer edge of both has a silver-washed border. As the name suggests, the Speckled wood is a woodland specialist, preferring woodland rides and margins where the sunlight can penetrate deepest. That’s not to say you have to find a vast forest to see them, a small copse is more than adequate a habitat.
It is amazing the effect a bit of sunshine can have on the landscape at this time of year. It is that point in the year when the weather can turn on a sixpence. Find a cool, overcast day in April and the countryside can still seem subdued. If the temperatures really dip like they have this week then there seems comparatively little life around, especially insect life, much of which relies on sun and warmth to fly and forage. Take away the cloud, the wind and let the sun shine through and instantly the Countryside is transformed. Seven species of butterfly in an hours stroll, I certainly can’t complain but after a horribly cold week, I hope the Bank Holiday will flip that sixpence again.