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Butterfly Conservation - saving butterflies, moths and our environment

Wildlife gardening – 2018 update

By Martin Kalaher

Every autumn I read through my garden notes and reflect on the summer that has just ended.  I like to have a think about what has worked-out well in the garden (and what hasn’t) and then consider what I might do differently next year. I also give some thought to the butterflies I have seen and consider which garden species have prospered, and which have struggled.

As a wildlife gardener I am trying to create a habitat that is attractive to a wide variety of our native insects. If we wish to encourage our native insects it seems logical to stock our gardens with British native wildflowers, and this I have done. In high summer the garden is full of butterflies, bumble bees, hoverflies and a myriad of other insect species. If we provide a good variety of larval food plants there is every chance that some of the butterflies may stay and breed and in 2018 around 25 butterfly species did just that, which makes all the effort so worthwhile.

I enjoy photographing the garden butterflies and my favourite image is a butterfly nectaring on a British native wildflower. Over the past two years I have also tried to photograph mating pairs and egg-laying butterflies. Photographing a butterfly laying an egg isn’t that easy for the target is often deep in the undergrowth, the act itself is all over in just a few seconds and the female is generally very fidgety and won’t keep still! I find these photographs interesting but inevitably some are a little bit below par when it comes to the quality of the picture.

Butterfly species recorded in 2018

In 2018 a total of 31 butterfly species were recorded, which is a new garden record. There are some butterflies that I might call “bonus species” in that it is very hit-and-miss as to whether they appear in the garden and if they do visit, they may not stay for very long.  Within this category I would include Clouded Yellow, Small Blue, Chalkhill Blue, Purple Hairstreak, Silver-washed Fritillary and Dark Green Fritillary. Of these I was fortunate enough to see all on this list except for Clouded Yellow, which usually visits the garden in August. A total of 31 species in one season will be difficult to beat but we shall see.

The species seen this year with daily minima, in brackets, as follows: Small Skipper (10+), Essex Skipper (10+), Large Skipper (2), Dingy Skipper (2-3), Brimstone (5+), Large White (8-10), Small White (8-10), Green-veined White (3), Orange-tip (6), Green Hairstreak (3), Brown Hairstreak (1), Purple Hairstreak (1), Small Copper (5+), Small Blue (1f), Brown Argus (8+), Common Blue (10), Chalkhill Blue (1m), Holly Blue (8-10), Red Admiral (4), Painted Lady (2), Small Tortoiseshell (1), Peacock (5), Comma (2), Dark Green Fritillary (1), Silver-washed Fritillary (1), Speckled Wood (3), Marbled White (10), Gatekeeper (30), Meadow Brown (25), Ringlet (3) and Small Heath (4).

An overview of the 2018 butterfly season

April was mostly cold with very few butterflies on the wing. There was the occasional warm day with April 19th the hottest April day recorded in the UK for 70 years! Despite the cool conditions there was quite a good variety of butterflies and with two Speckled Wood on the 21st the garden list had risen to 11 species, which was a new record for April (exceeding the 10 species recorded in 2017). As April was cold so May was warm, sunny and dry. On May 6th there were two male Green Hairstreaks on territory and another (presumably a female) in the meadow. There were also 8-10 Holly Blue, including one laying eggs on Portuguese Laurel. On the 14th there was more egg laying, this time a Holly Blue laying eggs on Dogwood (which was a “first” for me). In 2017 I recorded Dingy Skipper for the first time and had three different individuals that year. I hoped for a regular small breeding colony and was delighted when one appeared on May 19th, with several seen over the next 10 days or so. On May 21st, I had singles of Dingy Skipper, Brown Argus and Small Copper all holding down territories, and so clearly all males. This is a first for the garden. I have never seen a male of any of these three species defending a territory in the garden but to have all three on the same day was rather special.

A Painted Lady on June 1st and a male Meadow Brown on the 2nd brought the annual total to 20 butterfly species. By the 7th there were at least three different female Common Blues in the meadow. By the 25th the garden was hotting up both literally (it was warm and sunny) and figuratively, with 38 butterflies as the daily count. There were 12 species for the day, including two new additions for the year with Essex Skipper and Purple Hairstreak adding to the running total of 25 species. On the 30th there was a Silver-washed Fritillary which took the garden total to 28 butterfly species, and not yet into July (our best butterfly month!). We were also in the middle of a heatwave, which was nice for us and the butterflies didn’t seem to mind!

My Open Day on July 1st came and went and around 35 members visited the garden. I certainly enjoyed showing people around, and the wildflowers in the meadow and herbaceous borders gave a good display. We managed to record 12 butterfly species, including all three meadow skippers.

By the end of July, I generally expect daily butterfly counts of 100+ with 15+ species for the day but this year it never happened. On July 24th there was a count of 13 species and a total of around 70 but that was as good as it got. Of the 70 butterflies approximately 30 were Gatekeepers, whereas 40+ is more usual but notable by their absence were the large numbers of butterflies that usually cover the Buddleia and Hemp Agrimony in late July and early August. It is not unusual for there to be double figures for Red Admiral, Peacock, Comma and Small Tortoiseshell (in the occasional good year) but in 2018 they just didn’t show up. There was a maximum daily count of five for Red Admiral and Peacock with the occasional Comma and just one Small Tortoiseshell.

The garden species count finished in August with a male Chalkhill Blue on the 4th and a Brown Hairstreak on the 8th and disappointingly, Clouded Yellow never came! I cannot really comment on the autumn as I wasn’t around for most of September. The stand-out performers in late September and early October were third-generation Small Coppers with up to 4-5 in the garden on many days, including two males “on territory”.

I thought most of my garden species had an “average year” but with Large White, Small White and Green-veined White well above average. Red Admiral, Peacock, Comma and Large Skipper had a below average year and Small Tortoiseshell a disastrous year with only two seen all season.

Wildflower meadow, herbaceous borders and background foliage

I will use the same format as last year and artificially separate the garden into three key areas; Background foliage, Herbaceous borders and Wildflower Meadow.

Background Foliage

The background foliage at Cherry House consists of deciduous hedgerows, British-native tree species and evergreen shrubbery. The only change in 2018 was the addition of eight Honeysuckle, which I planted at the back of the two herbaceous borders and by the hedge on the eastern side of the garden. I have never recorded White Admiral in the garden and I am not aware of any within 5-10 miles of where I live but I thought it would be a worthwhile addition to the back garden. As we had three months of blistering temperatures and almost no rain, it required a lot of watering to keep them alive. It is always going to be a problem when we add plants next to a well-established hedge, but I think I did well by only losing one of the Honeysuckles. Whether the remaining seven plants go on to thrive (as opposed to simply surviving) remains to be seen. In the spring I will add lots of garden compost to their bases and am prepared to do as much watering as it takes to help them out.

As usual, Brimstone laid their eggs on Alder Buckthorn and for the first time I observed a Holly Blue lay eggs on Dogwood. This latter species had a very strong spring with a record daily count of 8-10 on May 6th.

Herbaceous Border

In 2017 I extended one of the herbaceous borders and this year I extended this border by another couple of feet. It was mostly stocked with Betony, Marjoram and Devil’s-bit Scabious but otherwise the bare soil colonised “naturally” with a whole variety of interesting wildflowers (the extensive seed bank that exists within the garden playing its part). British natives such as Common Fleabane and Corn Marigold have brightened up the autumn without me doing anything! That isn’t to say that I haven’t spent a lot of time and effort on this extended bed for I have, wishing it to remain largely as a flower bed, without too much grass. At the end of this summer I extended the bed a little bit more and I am using this bare soil as a nursery area, where I have scattered the seeds of Betony, Devilsbit Scabious, Marjoram and Kidney Vetch, which should provide me with plenty more plants for next year.

In mid-summer the dominant native flowers in the two large herbaceous beds were Field Scabious, Greater Knapweed and Betony and in late summer Hemp Agrimony and Devils-bit Scabious. Non-native plants included Buddleia and Verbena Bonariensis.

Wildflower meadow

I extended the garden meadow in 2018 by incorporating a few square metres of the back lawn (with a very active mole population it isn’t much of a lawn – but I do keep it neat and tidy). Under the umbrella of a Scots Pine this area of lawn is mostly moss with the odd grass stem that manages to cope with the pine needles. As it happens a few self-seeded Common Sorrel, Ox-eye Daisy and Devilsbit Scabious were already there, “egging me on” for a change of use. Interestingly, the meadow butterflies readily adopted this new area (where the growth is very sparse) and used it as the main butterfly roost for the summer, with Small Skippers, Brown Argus, Common Blue and Small Copper all jostling for space, roosting cheek-by-jowl. I have trans-planted a dozen or so Devils-bit Scabious plants from last year’s nursery area to this new part of the meadow. One of the garden highlights of late summer was the sight of dozens of Devils-bit flowerheads in the herbaceous borders and wildflower meadow and its one of those plants that more is always better (especially when so many other wild flowers have long since gone to seed).

The garden meadow only measures 17 metres by 15 metres, but it contains at least 13 butterfly breeding colonies. I never tire of wandering around the meadow and recording what I see, as for June 25th - the garden is hotting up both literally and figuratively with 12 species today and a daily count of around 38 butterflies. Species and numbers as follows: Small Skipper (1), Essex Skipper (1),  Large Skipper (1), Large White (1), Small White (1), Green-veined White (1), Purple Hairstreak (1),  Red Admiral (1), Comma (2), Marbled White (3), Meadow Brown (20) and Ringlet (3). I am pleased that all three meadow Skippers are present, and the female Purple Hairstreak (on the Oak), was a bonus. I watched a Small Skipper laying eggs on Yorkshire-fog. I haven't seen that too often.

Other insect species in the garden

Butterflies are relatively easy to spot and identify but when we begin to look at other insects we generally find it a lot more difficult, although there is no logical reason why this should be so. The truth is that few of us (as youngsters) have had the opportunity to learn about our native insects and most of us just need a helping hand. Anyway, moving on with this report, in 2017 Humming-bird Hawk-moth held centre stage and I had so many sightings that I speculated that they might have bred in the garden. Unfortunately, 2018 was a lean year for this species with just three brief sightings. However, there were other insects that shone through including Beautiful Demoiselle and White-tailed Bumblebee Hoverfly.

I will repeat my posting of June 8th: As I have a wildlife garden I am happy to send in sightings and photos of other insect species. The three highlights were, a butterfly, a hover-fly and a Demoiselle. The butterfly was a very blue female Common Blue, the hover-fly was Volucella bombylas var. plumata, female (now that's quite a mouthful) and the demoiselle, a male Beautiful Demoiselle. Having sent in what I thought was a mating pair of cuckoo bumblebees recently but then pointed in the right direction by Vince and colleague, I spent ten minutes on the internet having a read about bumblebee hover-flies. I now realise that I have both the red-tailed (var. bombylans) and the white-tailed (var. plumata) varieties in the garden. Interestingly, they do lay their eggs in the nests of both social wasps and bumblebees. As for the beautiful Demoiselle, since it could barely fly when first discovered I believe that it emerged from the garden pond (although the books mention fast-flowing water). I have seen five Beautiful Demoiselles in the garden this year, so far.

A close-up of a White-tailed Bumblebee Hoverfly reveals the “stuff of nightmares” and I’m sure it could easily feature in a horror film! However, from the rear (see the third photograph) it looks just like a Buff-tailed Bumblebee, a brilliant piece of mimicry.


Yet another garden record was set in 2018 when 31 butterfly species were recorded, with the cumulative total remaining at 34 species. This was an excellent year for variety but not the numbers I have come to expect. A maximum daily count of around 70 was well short of the 100-110 that I usually see in late July/early August. Gatekeeper numbers were down by a third or so and the over-wintering species, Red Admiral, Peacock and Comma didn’t show up in any significant numbers. I kept waiting but it didn’t happen.

There were plenty of highlights which I will now list. Twenty five butterfly species that attempted breeding was right up there, with all three meadow skippers plus Dingy Skipper. Brief views of Chalkhill Blue, Small Blue and Purple Hairstreak were some of my so-called “bonus species” (as I cannot rely on them appearing every year). Colonial roosting for many of the meadow butterflies added a little something, as well as setting up additional photographic opportunities. Finally, the wildflowers themselves, which put on a good show for much of the summer.

I haven’t any large projects lined up for 2019. I will no doubt extend the herbaceous border (by the pond) a few more feet and I will continue to improve the area of meadow by the Scots Pines. I could decide to do nothing at all, with just a single cut at the end of August/early September but in a few short years the dominant grass species would soon take over. I have un-leashed Yellow Rattle on the meadow and hopefully will not regret this decision. I still have some reservations about this plant species as it sometimes prove to be a little too dominating and appears to be capable of taking over large areas of a meadow, with few other meadow plants present. We shall see. Otherwise a bit of tinkering here and tinkering there and experimenting with different sward levels for different areas of the meadow. More about that another time.

It has been great fun writing this article. It enables me to re-live some of the best moments of the summer and to a small degree share some of these moments with others. That’s also why I like having an Open Day as the written word and photographs only tell us so much. Wildlife gardening can be incredibly rewarding but I will repeat the same message as last year, if anyone tells you it is easy and labour-free, do not believe them!

Martin Kalaher
November 2018

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