Butterfly Conservation
saving butterflies, moths and our environment
Butterfly Conservation - saving butterflies, moths and our environment

Wildlife gardening - 2019 update

By Martin Kalaher

It is early autumn once again and time for me to check my garden notes and reflect on the butterfly season that is gradually coming to a close. The season is not yet done but most of the wildflower meadow and herbaceous beds have now had their annual cut and sources of nectar are rapidly diminishing. Fortunately, there are still large swathes of flowering Devilsbit Scabious to satisfy the needs of the few garden butterflies and bumble bees that still remain. Devilsbit Scabious is a native plant that can tolerate both very wet and very dry conditions and looks at its best when a dozen or so are planted close together. It is a very worthwhile addition to any garden, but provenance is important for European plants flower in May, whereas our British native plants flower in August/September, which extends the flowering season rather nicely. 2019 has been the best season so far in terms of numbers and variety of butterflies. A total of 32 butterfly species were recorded, a new garden record (29 species in 2017 and 31 species in 2018). On just one day (August 2nd) there were 20 butterfly species in the garden and around 140 as a daily count. I like the numbers but what pleases me more is the variety of breeding butterfly species (26-27 this year) and if I manage to spot them, I try and take photographs of mating pairs and egg-laying.

Very occasionally an opportunity arises to add to our collective knowledge, and this year I confirmed that Brown Argus uses Birdsfoot Trefoil as one of its larval foodplants. It is generally stated that Brown Argus uses Common Rock-rose on downland and a variety of Geraniums, elsewhere. Whilst I have these in the garden, I have never thought there was enough to sustain the sizeable colony of Brown Argus. They had to be using Birdsfoot Trefoil, but I have never witnessed the event until this summer when I managed a couple of photographs of egg-laying on this plant. As for Green Hairstreak, their catholic tastes seem to have few limits (but more of that later).

An overview of the 2019 butterfly season

The species seen this year with daily minima, in brackets, as follows: Small Skipper (10+), Essex Skipper (10+), Large Skipper (2), Dingy Skipper (1), Brimstone (3), Large White (8), Small White (12), Green-veined White (1-2), Orange-tip (4), Green Hairstreak (2), Brown Hairstreak (1), Purple Hairstreak (2), Small Copper (5+), Long-tailed Blue (1m), Small Blue (1f), Brown Argus (12+), Common Blue (5), Holly Blue (7), Red Admiral (9), Painted Lady (4), Small Tortoiseshell (1), Peacock (6), Comma (1), Dark Green Fritillary (1), Silver-washed Fritillary (1), Speckled Wood (2), Wall Brown (1m), Marbled White (6+), Gatekeeper (50+), Meadow Brown (25+), Ringlet (6+) and Small Heath (5).

In the following account the first sighting of each species is highlighted in bold.

February -- Three days of unseasonable warmth encouraged some of our over-winter butterflies to come out of hibernation, with a male Brimstone on the 26th and a Comma (nectaring on Viburnum) on the 27th. A February sighting for Comma was very unusual with my previous earliest record on 25/03/2011.

March -- A Peacock appeared on the 19th and there was a very early Holly Blue on the 24th, with 3 Brimstones and 2 Peacocks seen on the same day. This is only the second time I have recorded Holly Blue in March, with the previous earliest record on 29/03/2012.

April -- There was a male Orange-tip on the 1st and a Speckled Wood on the 19th. There was a flurry of activity on the 20th with Small White, Green-veined White and Small Tortoiseshell. On the 21st there was a Large White and on the 23rd a Brimstone was laying eggs on Alder Buckthorn.

May - There was a Red Admiral on the 12th (a surprisingly late date for this species) and a Small Copper on the 13th. In fairly quick succession I recorded a male Brown Argus on the 18th, Small Heath on the 20th, Dingy Skipper on the 21st, Common Blue on the 22nd and Green Hairstreak on the 23rd. The Dingy Skipper was in fine condition and most probably emerged from the meadow itself. The Common Blue was a female, which was unusual as I generally see 1-2 males several days before recording my first female. The Green Hairstreak was laying eggs on Birdsfoot Trefoil, which was only the second time I have recorded this (the previous time was in 2015). I didn't see my first male Common Blue until the 26th and to finish off the month there was a Small Copper laying eggs on Common Sorrel, on the 30th.

June -- Both Meadow Brown and Painted Lady were seen on the 1st but the real surprise of early June were three different female Green Hairstreaks laying eggs on a variety of plants: Birdsfoot Trefoil and Dogwood (well-known larval food plants), Greater Knapweed, Common Sorrel and Betony (not so well-known and perhaps not previously recorded?). A Large Skipper was found on low shrubs by the garden pond on the 3rd. A very-faded Small Blue was egg-laying on Kidney Vetch on the 23rd, which was the first time I have recorded this in the garden. The first Marbled White of the summer was seen in the wildflower meadow on the 24th, with a Small Skipper present on the 25th. The first Ringlet was seen on the 27th and on the 28th the meadow was heaving with a variety of brown butterflies, with many Meadow Brown as coupled pairs. The first Gatekeeper was recorded on the 30th .

July -- The first Essex Skipper appeared on the 2nd and a male Dark Green Fritillary graced the garden meadow (very briefly) on the 9th and on the same day there was a Purple Hairstreak on the bramble patch, by the pond. July 9th was the first day I could truly say that the garden was alive with butterflies, with a minimum of 18 species recorded.

August -- An aberrant male Brown Hairstreak was found nectaring on Hemp Agrimony on the 1st and whilst attempting to re-locate this beautiful insect (unsuccessfully, I might add) I recorded a fly-through Silver-washed Fritillary on the 2nd, a very handsome male Wall Brown on the 4th, and a very worn, male Long-tailed Blue on the 23rd.

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. Over the past 2-3 years I have allowed most of the hedgerows to grow taller and wilder and this has proved to be beneficial for the garden butterflies, as the main herbaceous bed (by the pond) is now very sheltered from the prevailing wind. Whether or not it is coincidence I cannot say but the all the “Browns” appeared to have benefited from this increase in shelter with nice-size colonies of Gatekeeper (50+), Meadow Brown (25+), Ringlet (6+) and Small Heath (5+). I also had more second generation Holly Blue than ever before and there were often 4-5 flying around close together by the garden pond. The Honeysuckle I planted last year has just about survived. Planting close to an established hedge was always going to prove difficult and although we didn't have a repeat of the 2018 heatwave, we did have seven weeks in the summer when there was virtually no rainfall and the earth was bone-dry. I will feed and water the Honeysuckle and hope for the best, but I am not overly optimistic that they will do well. What is flourishing is a sizeable Bramble patch next to the garden pond! As many butterflies are attracted to both the nectar of the flower heads and the juice of the Blackberries, I have decided to leave the brambles alone, for now.

Herbaceous Border

I have enlarged the herbaceous bed adjacent to the pond and stocked it with Marjoram, Betony and Devilsbit Scabious. I removed most of the grass, created lots of bare patches and in no time at all, up sprung self-seeded Ox-eye Daisy, Hemp Agrimony, Field Scabious, Purple Loosestrife, with the under-stated yellow flowers of Nipplewort running riot throughout. In early July it was lovely mixture of colours and most of it was a natural creation with very little intervention or aforethought from me. Magical!

Wildflower meadow

In 2018 I extended the wildflower meadow, by adding a few square metres of back lawn. I transplanted a dozen or so Devilsbit Scabious from the nursery area, most of which survived. The main problem with this part of the garden is the intense dryness of the soil, made worse by the proximity of a couple of mature Scots Pines. The other problem was a Badger, which decided it was a good area for earthworms (probably because I regularly watered the transplanted Scabious) and this new area of meadow was littered with deep holes, dug by powerful claws!

There is an area of meadow, immediately adjacent to the lawn, which I have previously referred to as “the orchid bed”. The soil quality is very poor and grass species generally struggle but where grasses do not prosper, our native wildflowers often flourish and Field Scabious, Devilsbit Scabious, Ox-eye Daisy and Kidney Vetch all do well. Kidney Vetch has an attractive flower-head, which is rich in nectar but the main reason for nurturing this wildflower is to try and establish a small colony of Small Blues. Last year I had a very brief view of a female Small Blue but this year I was delighted when I spotted three different females laying eggs on Kidney Vetch. Female 1 was a very worn specimen, first seen on June 23rd and photographed whilst egg-laying on the 24th. Female 2 was in very good condition (and may have emerged from the garden itself) and was present on July 23rd and 24th. Female 3 (not photographed) was seen on August 2nd and as regards condition was somewhat intermediate between the other two, neither very fresh nor very worn.

I have yet to see a male Small blue in the garden, but with luck I may see one or two territorial males next year?

Aberrant Brown Hairstreak

An aberrant male Brown Hairstreak was nectaring on Hemp Agrimony on August 1st, with another aberrant female seen (but not photographed) on the 9th. This aberrant is yet un-named and as far as is known has never previously been recorded in the wild. Rupert Barrington, a national expert on aberrant butterflies, has kindly agreed for his e-mail to Colin Pratt (Sussex Recorder for butterflies and moths) to be reproduced in this article.

Dear Colin

Many thanks - this is a wonderful var, the best I have seen for years. It is unnamed and I'm pretty sure it has not been seen in the wild, in the UK, before.

Similar specimens have been produced by temperature shock treatment and no doubt this specimen was the result of high temps on the later larva/early pupa.

It is the equivalent of albovirgata Tutt in w-album. It is extremely rare in that species. My old friend general Lipscomb captured one in that species in Wiltshire and there is another specimen in existence from a hundred or more years ago.

It is very interesting that this phase of variation has now been photographed in recent years in rubi, w-album and now betulae, though not yet in pruni, so far as I am aware. It was unknown in rubi until one was photographed in Yorkshire in the 1980's and there is also another, more recent photograph.

This could be due to changing climate producing more 'temperature shock days', but it may also be due to the number of observers who are now looking closely at, and photographing, species like these, that the old collectors would have paid little attention to in the adult stage (except perhaps pruni). Betulae would have generally been collected as eggs, w-album beaten as larvae and rubi probably just wasn't of great interest to them.

A remarkable insect. I feel that a hard copy of photos of such extreme vars as this should be deposited in the Natural History Museum, as an insurance policy. One always worries about the long-term security of digital photographs.

If further photos can be obtained, including the upperside, I think it would be an advantage.

Well I never did manage any more photographs and the sighting of the female on the 9th was only for 20-30 seconds. Photographing the butterfly on the 1st wasn't straightforward as the Hemp Agrimony flowerheads were 7-8 feet off the ground and behind some dense Dogwood suckers and therefore I was always a few feet away. Initially I fetched a chair and took some photos and then I lugged over a stepladder to get a bit closer. I was still around 3 feet away, which isn't ideal for my 90mm macro lens.

The underparts for both left and right wing appear to be the same. I didn't see the upperparts of the male but the female of the 9th appeared to be a standard female, with large patches of gold on the forewings.

Summary

On August 2nd there were 20 butterfly species in the garden with a daily total of around 140 butterflies - both garden records. The enlargement of the herbaceous border underpinned it all. By allowing the hedgerow on the eastern border of the garden to grow tall and wild the herbaceous bed is now very well-protected from the prevailing westerlies and even on a windy day the garden butterflies can readily find shelter. Even with wildlife gardens one has to be prepared to do some weeding, which for this herbaceous bed means removing most of the grass and also some of the more dominant wildflowers such Ox-eye Daisy, Wild carrot and Ribwort Plantain, all of which have a habit of taking over, if allowed.

2019 was a very special year but as always there were some personal highlights. I will begin with a common brown butterfly, the Ringlet. On some days there were as many Ringlets as Meadow Browns in the meadow, and I've never had that experience before ----- Being in the right place at the right time certainly applied to the male Dark Green Fritillary, which landed on a flowerhead just 5-6 feet away from where I happened to be standing - just how lucky was that! ----- Having grown Kidney Vetch all these years it was great to watch Small Blues lay their eggs, which will hopefully be the beginnings of a small colony? ----- Aberrant Brown Hairstreaks - will they be back next year? ----- I have never photographed a Purple Hairstreak in the garden but this year I observed and photographed them on 12 consecutive days ----- It was really nice to see a male Wall, when I haven't recorded one in the garden for around 10 years ----- Painted ladies seen every day, for the whole of August, that's never happened before ----- And last but not least, a male Long-tailed Blue, a first for the garden - this blue butterfly took the season's total to 32 butterfly species with the cumulative total now standing at 35 species.

The wildflowers were a treat and if anyone is thinking of creating an herbaceous bed of British native wildflowers, do consider trying Field Scabious, Devilsbit Scabious, Marjoram, Greater Knapweed and Betony. I would recommend buying plugs from a specialist nursery and then pot them up once or twice, before planting them out.

I haven't any large projects lined up for 2020. The enlarged herbaceous border (by the pond) looked good in 2019 and was full of butterflies, so I will do what I can to keep it that way. I will transplant a few more Devilsbit Scabious from the nursery area to the meadow by the Scots Pines. Kidney Vetch will receive my full attention as it would be lovely to have a colony of Small Blues in the garden.

One of the great joys of having one's own little nature reserve (sometimes called a wildlife garden) is the opportunity to click a camera without having to drive anywhere (let's call it eco-friendly photography!). The following are this year's favourite three photos, for they all have a special story to tell:

I shall treasure this photograph forever as I may never have another opportunity to take an image of an aberrant Brown Hairstreak. As this beautiful insect was some distance from where I was perched on a stepladder, I count myself very fortunate that it tilted its wings at just the right moment to allow this photograph to be taken.

I have waited many years to see a Small Blue egg-laying on the Kidney Vetch in the garden and at long last it happened in 2019, with the hope that there may be a Small Blue colony in 2020.

I may not have spotted this very tatty male Long-tailed Blue were it not for Purple Loosestrife, as this butterfly ignored all the other flowerheads available and nectared only on Loosestrife. It just goes to show the importance of plant diversity, if we wish to encourage as wide a range of insects as possible. Although Long-tailed Blues are strongly associated with coastal areas, I do wonder how other individuals might have wandered inland this year?

It has been great fun writing this article, for it has enabled me to re-live some of the best moments of the summer and to a small degree, share them with others. If it encourages a few other gardeners to do something similar, then so much the better.

Martin Kalaher
September 2019

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