Nature Notes July 2022

Summer is associated in many people’s minds with butterflies, those beautiful insects that flutter lazily around the garden and the surrounding countryside. Some of the smaller butterflies, such as the skippers, are easily overlooked, but when you do see them they are delightful flashes of gold. The Small Skipper is one of the smallest and it is usually on the wing through July and August. The larvae feed exclusively on grasses, particularly the grass known as Yorkshire-fog. The adults prefer open grassland where there is a mixture of long grass and wild flowers to provide them with nectar, although they do occasionally appear in gardens.

Not all of the butterflies that we see are permanent residents of the UK. The Painted Lady is found in North Africa during the winter, but each spring it migrates northwards to colonise Europe before eventually arriving in England. This is the most spectacular butterfly migration seen in this country. The numbers reaching here varies from year to year, with sometimes just a few seen in dry areas whereas in a good year large numbers can be seen almost everywhere. The adults are frequently seen in flower-rich gardens, particularly on Buddleia, whilst the larvae feed mostly on thistles and nettles.

One of our most distinctive and dramatic butterflies is the Marbled White, which flies primarily in July. They live in unimproved grassland (no fertilisers) that has been allowed to grow long and that includes a selection of wild flowers, such as thistles, knapweed, scabious and wild marjoram. The caterpillars feed on a wide variety of grasses, with the largest populations found on chalk or limestone (not all that common in Leicestershire); fortunately they also thrive in woodland rides, road verges and railway embankments. It is unmistakable with its high contrast black and white wings, although the females have the same pattern in light and dark brown.

Marbled Whites are unusual amongst our butterflies because they are increasing in numbers and gradually spreading northwards. I recently read something that I wrote in 2015 saying that the species was very rare in our area and Ketton Quarry in Rutland was the nearest site where they could be reliably found. This is no longer the case as they are now found throughout the county with healthy colonies at Croft Hill and Bagworth Heath, where it is common to see 20-30 Marbled Whites during a short walk. This is not the case with most British butterflies, however; earlier this year the charity Butterfly Conservations placed more than half of the species found in this country on the Red List, at risk of extinction. The main reason for this disastrous state of affairs is habitat loss. Most of our flower meadows, especially chalk grassland, have been lost over the last 70 years. Pollution and climate change also contribute to the problem. We can all help as individuals by mowing less frequently and leaving patches of longer grass so butterflies have areas to lay their eggs. Planting nectar-rich plants also helps, but it is just as important to grow plants that provide food for caterpillars. The world would be a much poorer place without these colourful characters.