In the 1690s, John Ray of Black Notley near Braintree, sometimes considered to be the father of natural history in Britain, wrote that butterflies existed ‘to brighten the countryside like so many golden jewels’. There can be few people who would not appreciate that sentiment when they see butterflies. Sadly, since the Second World War our butterflies have declined at an extraordinary rate; some to the point of extinction.
Naturalist Peter Marren, in his charmingly titled book, ‘Rainbow Dust’, encapsulates the problem neatly when he states that ‘the pastoral landscape painted by John Constable supported the Swallowtail, Large Tortoiseshell, Purple Emperor, most of the blues, all but one of the hairstreaks and all but two of the fritillaries. Most of them have gone with little chance of coming back. The reason is the way intensive agriculture has changed the landscape of Suffolk from one of mixed farms with plenty of hedges, woods and flowery meadows to something closer to a prairie – a monoculture of wheat and barley.’
In truth we all know about these declines and we only have to look at our buddleia bushes which in the past were festooned with Red Admirals, Peacocks, Small Tortoiseshells and Painted Ladies but now seem to attract only the occasional visiting butterfly. Officially, last year was as the fourth worst butterfly year on record for England.
All this seems extremely gloomy and there is certainly a lot to be done. The weather also has a part to play and it may come as some surprise to learn that milder winters are bad for butterflies as they wake up and expend energy at a time of year when they cannot possibly survive. The past few summers have also been very poor for these beautiful insects so it is with considerable rejoicing that this summer has so far proved to be really very favourable for these beleaguered beauties.
Areas of grassland on the riverside that have yet to be grazed have been alive with dancing Ringlets, Meadow Browns and Skippers, both small and Essex and the ubiquitous large and small White. They may be the commoner species but it is extremely encouraging seeing them in greater numbers than for many years. The Common Blue, so very scarce in recent years, is now to be seen flitting here and there in substantial numbers in suitable habitat which, after such a marked decline, is very encouraging indeed.
All these butterflies have their season and they don’t live for long so they need fine weather if they are to stand a fighting chance to improve their lot. There is much that gardeners can do to help although it is unlikely that there will be large aggregations of butterflies on our ‘buddleias and Bonariensis’ (Verbena) as in the past. However, large clumps of wild marjoram in Great Cornard Country Park are proving to be tremendous bee and butterfly magnets and it was wonderful to see plenty of Gatekeepers feeding on these nectar-rich flowers as these butterflies have also been in very short supply in recent years. There was a time not so long ago when every summer country walker was accompanied by them and so it will be this year.
During May the Brown Argus was present in Cornard Country Park where it may be breeding as it is a particularly sedentary species and there is plenty of meadow crane’s-bill which is one of its larval food-plants. This month a second brood will be in flight but it can be easily confused with the female Common Blue unless it can be studied carefully.
Each and every butterfly is a ‘joy on the wing’ and this summer there are certainly more of John Ray’s ‘jewels’ to enjoy than for a number of years.