I rarely need an excuse to go out in search of butterflies but this month my eyes have been peeled more than usual for lepidoptera.
For the past few weeks an active and friendly charity called Butterfly Conservation has held its annual Big Butterfly Count – a nationwide initiative where people tot up the butterflies and day-flying moths they see in one location over 15 minutes. I’ve submitted several counts through a nifty little app on my phone including one from Sudbury’s Riverside.
Near the salmon leap following a margin of creeping thistle, a wonderful comma butterfly floats into view. The comma is a master of disguise - its ragged wings, dark and mottled on the underside, help conceal it when hibernating amongst dead leaves, while its caterpillar, flecked with brown and white, resembles bird droppings on a leaf.
As you study butterflies, you start to discern different traits in each species. The comma, it seems to me, has a laid-back temperament, content to settle, take its time and offer up lingering views of its glorious orange, black and brown markings.
Less relaxed is the gatekeeper – the next character to stutter into view. Flying low and veering in and out of the bramble, this delightful orange and brown insect takes on the role of guardian of the hedgerow along with its larger and plainer relative, the meadow brown.
Around us small and large white butterflies wheel and drift, like leaves on the wind, reassuringly ever-present.
At this time of year, the river banks are alive with the vivid pinks and lilacs of tall, swaying wildflowers, such as willowherb, comfrey, hemp agrimony and loosestrife. All these are attractive to insects but today the thistles seem to be more of a draw. This presents a challenge to the ranger team at the Sudbury Common Lands Charity, who must balance control of the thistles with leaving enough of their flowers for wildlife to enjoy.
Butterfly Conservation say around 120,000 records have been submitted for this year’s count –a record number for what is already the world’s largest citizen survey. It shows how many people hold butterflies dear and, maybe, how many have taken more notice of them during lockdown.
I certainly drew inspiration from the early season butterflies as we ventured out for our allotted ‘exercise’ during the fine weather of April and May. Cycling along the Valley Trail, orange tips greeted us as they travelled at high speed in the other direction while solitary brimstones fluttered by, determined and strong, as if on some long distance journey. For a week, as we took our daily walk alongside Belchamp Brook near Brundon Mill, we were joined by (presumably) the same peacock butterfly, which came to rest on the footpath several metres in front us, moving on another couple of metres only as our feet reached it and so on – keeping us company for a short while. Peacocks are among our most-loved butterflies, their striking markings one of the wonders of the natural world. One theory is that the yellow-rimmed eyespots on their wings evolved to startle and confuse predators. For us, they were beacons, lighting our way.
Moths and butterflies are important for a host of reasons: they are a key element of the food chain and are prey for birds and bats. These fragile creatures are also indicators of a healthy environment and where they exist, so do many other invertebrates.
Down at Cornard Country Park, which is also managed by the Sudbury Commons Lands Charity, I carry out another butterfly count. As I wander through the stunning spikes of rosebay willowherb and clusters of wild marjoram in search of butterflies, I’m struck by the number of bees, grasshoppers, spiders and flies of different varieties that I also encounter.
A stunning common blue butterfly hurries by, low and quick. It is small but I find it impossible to keep up.
It’s no wonder it is in a rush. By the time butterflies are on the wing, they have undergone an incredible metamorphosis from egg to caterpillar, through pupa or chrysalis, before emerging in all their colourful glory. Now, during what is known as the imago stage, their over-riding priority is to find a mate and to lay eggs to ensure the cycle continues.
It is a wonder, then, that they have time at all to dazzle us with their splendour.