The UK has recorded its lowest ever number of butterflies in an annual survey of the insects this year, however Young Ambassador Chris has been lucky to find them.

A blog by Chris Bailey, Young Ambassador for Wiltshire Wildlife Trust

I began my search for butterflies on a mild day in March 2021 looking for some of the earliest spring butterflies to emerge within the grassland behind my home. For a while the search had turned up nothing until a freshly emerged Comma flew in front of me and proceeded to rest on a branch, this individual stayed in one place for quite some time, slowly opening its wings to bask in the sun.

Comma

Image credit: Tony Coultiss

When the wings were closed it would reveal the white ‘comma’ shaped marking in which it gets its namesake. Surrounding these fields were thick hedges of many varieties which helped to provide homes for species of butterfly and their caterpillars.

A species I regularly saw were Brimstones, these intricately shaped butterflies would often hang around hedgerows where species such as Buckthorn grew, these bushes were the perfect egg – laying sites. They are quite good at camouflage; with the individuals I had seen mostly disappearing into the foliage as quick as I had seen them in the air which meant that I didn’t get many opportunities for photos.

Other species of butterfly that had emerged late in March were the Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell, these beautifully marked butterflies were most abundant in areas of flower rich grassland which were bordered with vast patches of Nettles; a staple foodplant of their caterpillars.

When I had arrived at the time Small Tortoiseshells were abundant in these nettle patches with males most often outnumbering the females as well as being quite territorial towards one another, chasing off rival males and other butterfly species. In areas in which the Small Tortoiseshells were present I didn’t see many Peacock individuals, presumably due to them being chased off by the territorial tortoiseshells. Instead, the Peacocks tended to fly along smaller patches of nettles that grew close to the bare rocky pathways that surrounded the outskirts of the fields, here I often saw them laying on these sunlit areas with their wings open to absorb as much of the early spring warmth as possible before they took off.

Warm spells in April brought out more species of butterfly with scores of individuals from the white family emerging and flying along the borders of the fields, taking regular stops at flowering Hawthorn bushes and other plants. These butterflies included Large Whites, Small Whites and the more intricately patterned Green Veined White.

Orange tips also emerged, these colourful butterflies visiting patches of Cuckooflower and Garlic Mustard which grew alongside the ditches in hedgerows in which they laid their eggs.

Occasionally, a passing Red Admiral would also make an entrance, either laying on the ground with its wings open or perched on a leaf in a thicket or tree showing off gorgeous colouration.

On May 29th I was able to take part in a guided walk led by Andy Stafford from the Butterfly Conservation at Boscombe Down to look for some late spring specialties that were regularly found in the chalk grassland. The walk was a great success with many of my target species being seen along different parts of the trail.

Adonis Blues were an extremely common sight as we walked with a flash of sky blue appearing in nearly every direction you turned; these pretty butterflies were joined by a few Common Blues which when combined with the former species, made for an impressive sight. The Common Blue and Adonis Blues would rest frequently, allowing for fantastic views at their individual colours and markings. Small Blue were also present in small quantities while Brown Argus also appeared on various occasions, the latter often being confused with female Common Blues although these individuals will often have some amount of blue near the base.

Adonis blues

Image credit: Chris Bailey

In some areas where small bushes such as Buckthorn grew, Green Hairstreaks were seen in good numbers, regularly vanishing out of sight as they landed in a cluster of leaves but then being seen once again as they either took flight or were seen tilting their wings towards the sun’s warmth.

Green Hairstreak

Image credit: Chris Bailey

Small Coppers were seen separately away from other butterflies as the territorial nature of the males led to most other insects being immediately chased away from the vicinity.

Small Copper

Image credit: Chris Bailey

We had also hoped to see two of Wiltshire’s uncommon skippers while on this walk and while Dingy Skippers did not disappoint, with incredible numbers being seen as they basked on sun baked chalk the smaller and far scarcer Grizzled Skipper was only seen on a few occasions, with only a couple of people including our guide being able to point out this small but absolutely beautiful butterfly.

A couple of days later I ventured to nearby Battlesbury Hill to look for the one of the county’s most declining butterflies the Marsh Fritillary. These beauties were seen in good numbers despite their dwindling numbers, and were found near their main foodplants of Devil’s – bit – scabious, an amazing spectacle.

Marsh fritillary

Image credit: Chris Bailey

Another butterfly that I saw frequently was the Wall, a butterfly that I had often confused with several fritillaries before learning the difference. The males of this species were often flying low to the ground, or seen basking in the sun looking to intercept a passing female.

Following Battlesbury Hill, I then visited Morgan’s Hill in Calne, an area of chalk grassland and wildflowers managed by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. Here I was lucky to see the decreasing Duke of Burgundy, a small butterfly which belongs to a family also known as the ‘Metalmarks’. I was only able to see a few of these butterflies, most being males which kept lookout of their territories on prominent leaves with only one female being seen flying low to the ground to look for egg - laying sites on Cowslip. Seeing these butterflies felt like an incredible privilege due to their decreasing numbers.

Duke of Burgundy

Image credit: Chris Bailey

I am very lucky to live in the vicinity of four fantastic nature reserves which are home to some of Wiltshire’s most spectacular butterflies, one of these great places is Echo Lodge Meadows.

In early July, I spent most of the time in the adjacent Webb’s Wood walking along sunlit glades and rides looking for Purple Emperors but unfortunately would always return with no sightings. One of the main stars of this reserve were White Admirals, an impressive butterfly which swooped down on a gliding wingbeat, landing on a vantage point on the fringes of trees. Occasionally landing right in front of my feet allowing for a great opportunity to closely look at their incredible markings and colouration.

While looking for other creatures aside from butterflies, I was fortunate to catch my second hairstreak of the year, a fast-flying White – Letter Hairstreak, however the single individual I was able to see did not rest at any point but instead took flight into the canopy of a nearby Elm.

I was able to look for more woodland specialist species during another guided walk led by Andy Stafford at Bentley Wood on July 11th. Whilst the Purple Emperors continued to be elusive, we did see another purple beauty in the form of Purple Hairstreaks which we would always see flying high above Oak trees. Silver Washed Fritillaries also showed spectacularly with males flitting around the females that would lay low on masses of ferns. Ringlets, Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns and Speckled Wood were seen in abundance. A brief sighting of a Holly Blue ticked the remaining ‘Blue’ off my list to end the morning.

Meadow browns

Image credit: Chris Bailey

Early afternoon we walked around the wildflower meadow and ticked off Large Skipper and Small Skipper while taking care to differentiate the Small Skipper from the extremely similar Essex Skipper (the antennae on the Essex Skipper having dark black tips). We then spent the next thirty minutes watching large groups of Marbled Whites and Small Heaths feed on scabious and thistles to cap off a superb day out.

At the time of writing this, I had currently seen 34 out of Wiltshire’s 45 butterfly species. Unfortunately, some of these species are either rarely seen in the county (Grayling) or too far past their flight season to guarantee a chance of seeing them (Small – Pearl Bordered Fritillary). However, with the remaining summer and the oncoming autumn I hope to see a few more of Wiltshire’s species before trying again next year.

Chris is a Young Ambassador for Wiltshire Wildlife Trust and can be found on Instagram @chris_baileyphotography. 

Read more blogs like this