Early butterflies are beginning to make an appearance - Chelsie Phillips and Nick Self from our Wild Landscapes team set out what to look out for when at home or out for a walk.

Although most of the population is home-isolating due to the recent COVID-19 outbreak, we are fortunate that the fine and dry weather has brought out the early spring butterflies. In your garden and during exercise you may be fortunate enough to see brimstone (gonepteryx rhamni), small tortoiseshell (aglais urticae), peacock (aglais io), and comma (polygonia c-album) butterflies basking in the sun or taking nectar from early spring flowers. 

                                   Small tortoiseshell

These early butterflies have overwintered as adults in sheds, under leaf litter and foliage, or in other sheltered places and have began waking as the temperature has started to rise. They will drink nectar from all sorts of early spring flowers but they particularly like to feed on purple deadnettle (lamium purpureum), flowering currant (ribes sanguineum), dandelion (taraxacumagg.), primrose (primula vulgaris), and cowslip (primula veris). 

As the warm period continues, there have also been a few reports of small white (pieris rapae) and even orange-tip (anthocharis cardamines) butterflies starting to trickle in. These species are the real signs of spring as they are the first species to emerge, having not overwintered as an adult, but as an egg, then as larvae, and then as a caterpillar.

                                    Small white

All the latest sightings in Wiltshire can be found on the Butterfly Conservation Wiltshire Branch website. Here you will also be able to upload your own records and find information about every butterfly species present in Wiltshire. 

Top 10 garden plants to support early butterflies:

  1. Bluebell (hyacinthoides non-scripta)
  2. Bugle (ajuga reptans)
  3. Grape hyacinth (muscari armeniacum)
  4. Lungwort (pulmonaria spp.)
  5. Goat willow (salix caprea)
  6. Cherry (prunus spp.)
  7. Plum (prunus domestica)
  8. Sweet William (dianthus barbatus)
  9. Cuckoo flower (cardamine pratensis)
  10. Heather (erica carnea)

 

 Creating a suitable habitat for butterflies in your garden

Having nectar-rich plants is only the first step to supporting your local butterfly population. Here are some more things to consider if you want your garden to be the perfect butterfly habitat:

Wild patches

Many caterpillars and pupae hibernate on the ground and among dead foliage. Tall grass with wildflowers is ideal for: gatekeepers; large, small, and Essex skippers; and meadow browns. So leave a corner of the garden to be a little more ‘wild’ all year round (see more on how to do this here).

Don’t forget the caterpillars!

We can become so focussed on providing nectar-rich plants for butterflies, we actually forget to support their other lifestages, such as caterpillars. Each butterfly species tends to have a select food plant they will rely upon as a caterpillar; for example, orange-tip butterflies lay their eggs on lady’s smock (cuckoo flower), garlic mustard, and honesty, while peacock butterfly caterpillars lay on stinging nettles. So consider your local butterfly species and what you could be planting to support their caterpillars too.

                                Peacock

Reconsider your relationship with ivy and nettles

The dense foliage of nettles and ivy both provide great protection for butterflies and caterpillars. The holly blue butterfly lays eggs on holly in spring and then switches to ivy in late summer. The caterpillars only feed on ivy flowerbuds, so you need to allow ivy to flower. Similarly, a small patch of stinging nettles can offer a range of butterflies, including red admirals, peacocks, and commas, a valuable place to lay eggs. 

                                 Comma

Protect your hedgerows

We already know that well-established, native hedgerows provide a fantastic habitat for many species, and butterflies are no exception. Many moths and some butterflies breed in trees and shrubs, including native hedges. Brimstones lay eggs on buckthorn and alder buckthorn. Maintain habitat by only trimming parts of native hedges each winter, always offering some un-touched hedgerow – rotate which section gets a trim! And if you don’t have any native hedgerow, consider planting blackthorn, goat willow, crab apple, rowan, hazel, hawthorn, and dog rose.

 

If you’d like an area designed and planted for pollinators, our horticulturist Chelsie can offer a bespoke service – email us at [email protected] or find out more here.

Don't forget too to donate to our wildflower crowdfunder appeal - if you donate £10 or more, you'll receive a pack of wildflower seeds, and if you donate £25 or more, you'll also receive a wildlife gardening booklet and a butterfly ID guide. Just a few days left now to donate - help us reach our target so we can plant more wildflowers across Wiltshire!