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2012 hasn’t been a good year for English butterflies, because most struggle to fly and therefore find mates when it is raining – and there has been a lot of rain through spring and summer. Some are having a late surge this August, making the most of some welcome sunshine. Here is a guide to some of the species you might see around the English countryside.
Even though there are fewer than 60 species of butterfly in England, it can be surprisingly hard to tell which species you are looking at when they flutter enticingly in front of you and won’t stop still to let you get a proper look. A good clue is the habitat you are in. If it’s a brown butterfly and you’re in woodland it is probably a speckled wood. If it’s resting near the ceiling in your house it will usually be a small tortoiseshell.
Apologies if your favourite English butterfly isn't featured.
Large White Butterfly
The large and small white butterflies used to be much maligned when most people grew cabbages, because their caterpillars eat cabbage plants. Fewer people grow cabbages at home these days and large scale cabbage growers usually use very effective pesticides. In this soggy summer they have often been the only butterfly around and they have been a welcome sight during breaks from the rain. Luckily their caterpillars eat lots of the cabbages wild relatives so there is still safe food available for them.
Large whites are bigger than the small white (not surprising) but when the two arrn't together it is hard to compare sizes. The male large white doesn't have spots on the upper surface of its wings, so that is a helpful thing to look for.
Green Veined White
Green Veined White
It is easiest to identify the green veined white from other butterflies when it is resting. The underside of the wings can then be seen and the greenish black veins stand out against a pale green background. \The caterpillars of the green veined white do not eat cabbages – so even if you have a cabbage patch you can welcome them into your garden. Green veined whites like damp meadows, hedgerows and brownfield sites which are reverting to nature.
The small tortoiseshell is the butterfly you are most likely to find in your house. Most British butterfly overwinter as eggs or pupae, but adult small tortoiseshells hibernate and our houses appeal because they are dry. They often choose a spot where the ceiling and the wall meet. You can just leave them be – they are very easy houseguests. Outside it can be a sociable butterfly. You might see 10 or 20 enjoying a patch of thistle flowers.
The small heath butterfly likes heathland, but is common in other grassy habitats too because the caterpillars eat grass. Although not much bigger than a 1 pence piece when it is resting, it is quite easy to spot and will like ahead of you looking tawny orange before coming to rest on a flower head.
Ringlets favour hedgerows of the damper meadow you might find on the edge of a wood. You’ll often see it resting amongst the grass and when it does you will be able to see the ringlets from which it gets its name. No it doesn’t sport curls of hair, but several spots – known as false eyes – on the top and undersides of its wings.
It’s speckled and it lives in broad leaved woodland. It likes to stake a territory around a shaft of sunlight and will chase off other butterflies which pass by. I feel quite sorry for butterflies trying to defend a territory – it is hard to look angry when you are beautifully marked and have fragile wings!
Meadow BrownClick thumbnail to view full-size
The clue is in the name – meadow brown butterflies love meadows. Whether the meadow is mainly grass or quite flowery as you walk through it you will disturb meadow browns which will jink ahead of you and then drop out of sight in the grass. Female meadow browns are the most attractively marked when their wings are open as they have orange around the false eye spots, whereas the male is all brown. With the wings closed it is harder to tell which is which.
Hedge Brown aka Gatekeeper
Confusingly the hedge brown butterfly is equally well known as the gatekeeper butterfly. The hedge brown name comes from their colour and their preferred habitat of hedges. The gatekeeper name comes from their habit of setting up territories in field corners or around stiles and field gates. They probably have territories all along the hedgerow, but humans just happen to notice them most by gateways and stiles!
Easy to confuse with other browns when their wings are closed, Open the wings reveal an orange base colour with double eye spot and thick brown edge to the wings.
The comma butterfly is actually named for a small white comma mark that you can see when its wings are folded and not for the comma shaped curves of the wings. With the wings open, it is a very attractive copper colour with black markings. Commas aren’t very sociable and are most often seen alone. They like gardens and parkland.
There are quite a lot of species of blue butterfly, such as the silver-studded blue and the Adonis blue, but most have are confined to very limited areas of England. The common blue can be seen throughout the country though. It especially likes meadows where there are a lot of wild flowers from the pea family such as bird’s foot trefoil and medick, because these are the caterpillars’ food.
I find skippers hard to distinguish between, but as a group they are distinctive because they have a distinctive stance when they rest on a flower. I think the individual photographed is a large skipper, but I’m not prepared to put money on it. They love a grassy wild flower meadow and I also see plenty on the lower areas of moorland in Lancashire. They flit or skip from flower to flower (hence the name skipper) and you will often see two having a bit of an aerial butterfly fight, so they are entertaining to watch.
The Painted Lady
With a name like that you expect something a little exotic with the painted lady. Whilst it is an attractive butterfly, it’s most interesting feature is that because it can’t survive overwinter in the UK, it arrives by migrating across the sea from southern Europe and North Africa. Some years they arrive en mass, lay eggs which quickly hatch and when the caterpillar’s become adults the painted lady numbers increase further and you can see them in their hundreds. Other years just a few come over and you hardly see any.
Burnet MothsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Burnet Moths – not a butterfly!
If you see a splash of black and red fluttering across a meadow, it is easy to imagine that it must be a butterfly, but it will either be a burnet moth or a cinnabar moth. These are day flying moths with red underwings. These are not usually showing when the rest, but are obvious in flight. There are six spot burnet moths and five spot burnet ones – so when they rest count the spots on one wing to see which species you’ve got. The cinnabar moth only has 2 red spots each side at rest.