Blog written by Chris Bailey

As the weather begins to warm and the days grow longer, we can begin to see the signs of spring already upon us. From the first snowdrops and daffodils blooming across green areas all over the county, and the booming calls of Common Frogs as they begin their seasonal breeding cycle, leaving huge clumps of spawn in our ponds and waterways ready to hatch into a new generation of Wiltshire’s amphibians. Butterflies are no different, some species have already taken advantage of the warming weather such as the Brimstone, a delicate but hardy butterfly, out on the wing in temperatures too harsh for other species as early as February. As the climate warms, the rest of Wiltshire’s butterfly species will begin to emerge one by one and soon our green spaces will be alive once again.

Photo of a butterflyA photo of a painted lady butterfly by Chris Bailey

Wiltshire is an important region for wildlife including butterflies, and we are incredibly fortunate to have some of the most threatened species call our landscapes home. Species such as the Duke of Burgundy, a sole representative of the ‘metalmark’ butterflies, barely cling on to the chalk grasslands in the north and south of the county but are thriving in localised populations thanks to management of foodplants, including cowslip and primrose and restoration of their habitats. Marsh Fritillaries, an impressive butterfly with patterned wings reminiscent of stained glass or mosaic are localised within the county and are thriving in wildflower and hay meadows having suffered from a monumental decline. Suitable habitat has been conserved in areas where it has declined, including North Wiltshire, where management of meadows has increased the number of devil’s – bit – scabious foodplants that the Marsh Fritillary needs to gain a stronghold and restore the populations back to healthier levels.

Woodlands are an important habitat for many of Wiltshire’s butterflies including some of the country’s most spectacular species of butterfly, both elusive and rare. His ‘Imperial Majesty’, the Purple Emperor, one of Wiltshire’s most impressive species yet difficult to observe. Only found in a few woodland habitats over Wiltshire and with peak season occurring during July, this butterfly eludes wildlife enthusiasts constantly, but grants the most persistent with views of glorious purple colouration as it glides down through the sun from the canopy of nearby Sallow from which they spend most of their time during the day. Venturing out on warm early mornings in July to suitable habitat can provide glimpses of butterflies that make their way down to pathways to drink salt from muddy puddles and animal faeces; quite an opposite behaviour from what you may expect from one of the county’s most beautiful butterflies. These encounters usually end by 10am before they fly back up to the canopies and resume their mating behaviours. If his imperial majesty continues to evade sight, then attention can be brought to some of Wiltshire’s other specialties including Purple Hairstreak, White Admiral; a similar species to the more common Red Admiral, and both Pearl – Bordered and Small Pearl – Bordered Fritillaries, although the latter continues to dwindle in numbers being extremely rare and local, found in only a few woodland sites proving difficult to observe.

Photo of a butterflyA photo of a green hairstreak butterfly by Chris Bailey

Although to see a lot of these specialist butterflies you will need to venture further, it is amazing to know that many of the 45 species found in Wiltshire can be attracted to our own gardens and green spaces.

This can be done by providing suitable foodplants for their caterpillars and providing nectar rich flowering plants that adults can rely on for food during their breeding season. Different plants placed within a garden can attract different species, if you are wishing to attract species such as Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Peacock, Red Admiral and the captivating Peacock, then planting larval foodplants such as Stinging Nettle and Thistle can persuade these species to lay their eggs. As these plants are weeds and can spread easily, they can be planted within a bucket that is sunk into the soil and with regular checks, can be kept in order to create fresh growth while also preventing them from spreading to other parts of the garden.

Bushes including Buckthorn provide food for the caterpillars of Brimstone, a species which is most often the first butterfly to emerge in early spring while bushes of holly provide food for the early generation of the small but impressive Holly Blue whose second generation of caterpillars will feed on ivy. Adult butterflies will readily feed on a number of flowering plants which can be sowed to provide food in different seasons for butterflies, flowers including Hyacinth, Primrose and Crocus are great sources of food for butterflies that emerge in the spring, providing a source of energy for butterflies to keep them going during the breeding season. In the summer, Buddleia – also known as Butterfly Bush can be planted in areas with well – drained soil and in full sun, this plant provides gorgeous bushes of flowers which can attract large numbers of butterflies including Peacock, Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral. Red Valerian is another easy to grow plant which flowers well into mid – summer and extending the flowering season, while verbena and sedum flower later on in the year into autumn providing food for the butterflies even after most flowers have stop flowering. Some species of butterfly can be attracted to gardens without the need for sowing flowering plants, species that form a part of the ‘browns’ including Small Heath, Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper and Ringlet will lay eggs on various types of grasses, this can be encouraged by leaving a part of your garden to grow wild undisturbed. These butterflies can be seen through the summer months with species such as the Meadow Brown even flying on overcast days.

Photo of a butterflyA photo of a gatekeeper butterfly by Chris Bailey

In autumn, the frequency in behaviour will began to change as the temperature begins to cool and butterflies will begin to seek safe refuges from the harsher temperatures. However, some butterflies will still show activity in the cooler autumnal days, Red Admirals will feast on windfallen apples and fruits from trees and other fruits gathering enough energy to use for hibernation in the corners of outbuildings or tree hollows, or for their migration south. Second generation Speckled Woods can be seen flitting through woodlands and are joined by Green – Veined Whites and Large Whites while the fiery tinge of Small Coppers continues to be present in warm and dry conditions. As the winter months draw in and the temperature drops, our butterflies such as Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells will be spending the winter in dark, cool places including outbuildings, tree hollows and even some areas of our own homes. Other butterflies like Purple Hairstreaks will spend the winter as eggs, weathering the cold temperatures until spring arrives once more while Marsh Fritillaries will hunker down at the bases of foodplants and tussocks of grass in their caterpillar form.

Butterflies are truly some of the most impressive examples of what wildlife the UK has to offer, they are important pollinators for plants helping to spread them across the landscape and are brilliant indicators of how an ecosystem is functioning, if the ecosystem begins to collapse then the butterflies will be one of the first to show signs. By sowing flowering plants and protecting the habitat in which they live in, we can help to conserve these amazing insects and bring back their numbers to that of a sustainable level.