"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour."

From "Auguries of Innocence"

by William Blake

Monday, 17 August 2015

A Rather Special Butterfly Walk



Last Saturday afternoon we made our way over the county border into Worcestershire to attend an organised Butterfly Walk held on a Higher Level Stewardship farm.

The one species I was really hoping to see was a Brown Hairstreak (Theola betulae) or an Ash Brownie as it is affectionately known. There is a colony of Brown Hairstreaks on the farm.

The Ash tree in the photo below is believed to be the local "Master Tree". Males, which are more elusive than females, congregate round the tops of Master Trees looking for a mate and feeding on honeydew. Females also spend time around the same tree until they are ready to lay eggs.

As we walked along the lane you couldn't miss the profusion of Blackthorn bushes covered in maturing sloes.

Blackthorn is the main food plant for Brown Hairstreak larvae.


We had been told that a female Brown Hairstreak had been spotted feeding on Knapweed in the hedgerow on the Saturday morning and lo and behold here she was in exactly the same place.





To say I was over the moon is a slight understatement as this was a life butterfly "tick" for me. The butterfly continued to stay on the same flower giving everyone on the walk a chance to take a photo.

Brown Hairstreaks are the largest species of British Hairstreaks. Sadly, long term trends show this butterfly is undergoing a severe decline. One of the main reasons for this is the unsympathetic farming practice of removal and flailing of blackthorn in the hedgerows which destroys the over-wintering eggs of this species. (I hasten to add that this most certainly did not apply to this particular farm!).

Brown Hairstreak are a UK BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) Priority species. The species has just one generation a year with the adults emerging in late July/early August. They are a local species living in colonies that tend to breed in the same localities year after year. They occur in habitats where Blackthorn, the main larval foodplant, is abundant. Adults will take nectar from Bramble, Devil's Bit Scabious, Hemp Agrimony, Hogweed, Ragwort and thistles as well as taking honeydew/sap.

Eggs, which resemble miniature sea urchins, are laid on the bark of Blackthorn (occasionally other species of Prunus such as Bullace are used) usually in a fork on a branch in sheltered areas exposed to sunlight. The larvae undergo partial development and then overwinter within the egg which makes them very vulnerable to hedge trimming as the eggs are laid on the youngest growth.

Caterpillars emerge from the egg in the Spring and following the first moult they will hide during the day in a silk pad on the underside of the leaf emerging at night to feed. They pupate amongst leaf litter or at the base of a plant after the third moult.

Over 400 eggs were found on this farm last Winter during surveying work by the West Midlands Branch of Butterfly Conservation. Little blue tags, as shown in the photo below, show the location of each egg found.


We left the lane to walk along wide field margins where wild flowers and butterflies flourished. It took me back to the countryside of my childhood when butterflies were everywhere and just shows the huge benefits of a farm managed for wildlife under a Higher Level Stewardship Agreement with Natural England Huge credit must go to the farm for all the hard work they have put in to develop an environment where butterflies and birds are so abundant.

Butterflies seen on the three hour walk included:

Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)

Green-veined White ( Pieris napi)

Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) - my first of the year!

Dozens of Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)

Small Skipper (Thymelius sylvestris) or is it an Essex as originally thought? Were there ever two harder species to tell apart?!

Brown Argus (Aricia agestis) - another new species for 2015.


We also spotted Large and Small Whites, dozens of Gatekeepers, Speckled Wood, Ringlet, Comma, Small Tortoiseshell and I think possibly a couple of others that we missed as we'd lingered to take photos.

Day-flying moths included several species of Grass Moth (Crambidae), Silver y, Straw Dot and Shaded Broad-bar.

There were so many highlights during the afternoon and a sighting of a Roesel's Bush-cricket (another "lifer" for me) was the icing on the cake.

Roesel's Bush-cricket (Metrioptera roeselii) was found only in the South-East of England in the early twentieth century but there has been a rapid expansion in its range northwards and westwards in recent years. Roadside grassland and scrub have acted as "corridors" and allowed it to travel to new areas.

We finally returned to the farm and were treated to homemade cakes and tea - a lovely ending to a wonderful afternoon.

Every single hectare of Upper Hollowfields is farmed sympathetically to benefit wildlife under a Natural England Higher Level Stewardship Scheme. For example, wild bird mixes have been sown, hedge management is undertaken on rotation taking into account the requirements of different species including Brown Hairstreak, wild flower meadows have been created, a wet meadow of botanical importance has been allowed to naturally regenerate, scrapes have been created for waders and an orchard is currently being restored. 80 species of bird have been recorded on the farm.

I appreciate not all farms qualify for HLS but it was exceedingly interesting and uplifting to see what a difference farming in an environmentally friendly way can make for wildlife.

Many thanks to GC who led the walk for his knowledge, friendliness and enthusiasm (and for finding a BH for us all to see!!) and to Wild Hollowfields who hosted this superb event.

Most of the photos above were taken by David with the Canon Bridge which far outshone the Olympus dslr and 70-300 lens! The photos with an asterisk underneath were taken by me with the Olympus.


Margaret Adamson said...

a wonderul array of these beautiful critteers you found on your walk.

Countryside Tales said...

Superb post packed with such interesting and easy to read and digest information. What a fantastic day you had! I found a very elderly Ash Brownie up on Broughton Down last Sept which was a first for the area, hoping it might belong to a colony so have been keeping eyes peeled without luck so far. Also saw a Small Copper yesterday which I was pleased about as I haven't seen many of them recently. Your post shows the value of HLS schemes so well.

Ragged Robin said...

Margaret Adamson - Thanks very much Margaret - it was a great afternoon :)

Countryside Tales - Thanks very much CT - probably the best butterflying expedition yet this year! I think it surpassed Oversley Wood! Hope you manage to spot some more at Broughton Down. I never seem to see many Small Coppers locally so it was good to see 2 on the walk.

I was exceedingly impressed with the farm and the way the land was managed. I think its a lot of hardwork for them with all the paperwork etc. etc. but they deserve a huge pat on the back :)

David said...

Glorious stuff Caroline and a very welcome post on what is a very wet day up here in East Yorkshire. I am so glad you managed to record Brown Hairstreak and since I have never seen this species in person I doubly enjoyed your (and David's) superb photos. The farm certainly sounds impressive, and all the butterflies are lovely to see, and it just goes to show what can be accomplished if the effort is put in :-)

Best wishes and kindest regards :-)

Ragged Robin said...

David - Thanks so much for your very kind comment :) Dull and muggy here but no rain yet today!! I am so pleased you enjoyed the Brown Hairstreak - I think it mainly occurs on Southern Britain - looking at the distribution map the nearest area to you where it occurs is North Lincolnshire.

It was lovely to meet the people who run the farm and see their passion for wildlife and good to see the management is paying dividends with BH as well as birds :)

With very best wishes Caroline

amanda peters said...

How wonderful, so many Butterflies and how great to see a Brown Hairstreak and Small Copper (they are tiny) photos of them are great. They are doing wonderful work on this farm just need all the farms to do this..
Amanda xx

Ragged Robin said...

Amanda Peters - Thanks so much Amanda. I was really excited about the Brown Hairstreak and so pleased about the Small Coppers as I don't see many!

Would be wonderful if all farms could do so much - would certainly help reverse decline in so many species. Sadly, I think only a certain amount of farms qualify for the HLS depending on where they are and wildlife potential.

Cathy said...

I enjoyed seeing your colorful butterflies. I've been photographing mine lately and for the first time am noticing the variety of species. I have what I believe to be a Red-banded Hairstreak butterfly. You can see it here: http://icomeinthelittlethings.blogspot.com/2015/08/working-in-garden.html#more
Another interesting one I have is the Fiery Skipper:

Caroline Gill said...

What a fabulous butterfly walk. And huge congratulations on the brown Hairstreak. I would love to see one of these. Your photos are so lovely! We went on a guided butterfly walk a year ago at NT Wicken Fen (not far from Ely, Cambs). Hope to do this again, but may have to wait until 2016 now, I suppose. Thank you so much for adding your bit to my buddleia 'debate'! I am certainly hoping to find a spot in the garden for a nectar-rich species, probably a purple one. The white blooms stay white for such a short time before they turn brown, which is disappointing.

Ragged Robin said...

Cathy - Thanks so much for the comment. I've looked at your butterflies - they are really lovely and not species we get over here. I never tire at watching butterflies :)

Ragged Robin said...

Caroline Gill - Thanks so much :) I am so glad I finally made the effort to go in search of Brown Hairstreak - its a species I've wanted to see for years! I'll certainly go on more organised butterfly walks here too - a great experience :)

From our experience the purple buddleias certainly attract far more butterflies (and bees and hoverflies!). You can also apparently get a yellow one with more globular flowers called Sungold that looks very pretty.

Toffeeapple said...

What a wonderful day you had and what a wonderful report you have given us, thank you so much, it is appreciated. If only more farms were able to do the same thing.

Ragged Robin said...

Toffeeapple - Thanks so much for your very kind comment :) It was one of those afternoons that was very special and will live in the memory :)

I so agree with your last sentence.

Pete Duxon said...

well done! sounds a good walk!

Ragged Robin said...

Pete Duxon - Thanks Pete :) Not sure if you will see this reply but what I really want to know is have you seen one?(the Brown Hairstreak that is!!! ) :)

SeagullSuzie said...

That's just fantastic! What a walk and just so good to hear about farms which are protecting the countryside. Love the images, and interesting to find out that the bridge camera was better at this photography work than the dslr, although I think the dslr lens is responsible this time.
I've been enjoying the sigma macro lens recently and have caught some lovely insects on camera.

Ragged Robin said...

SeagullSuzie - Thanks so much Suzie for your lovely comment. Sadly, Sigma don't make lenses for the Olympus cameras :( I finally found out why my Olympus macro lens is no good for what I what. Its only 35mm which means I have to get really close to insects to get photos which isn't often possible :( I really should have looked into it more before I bought it as I really need a 100mm macro.

Look forward to seeing your insect photos if you do a post (please :) )

Millymollymandy said...

Squealing with delight here! What a wonderful experience this must have been. Congrats on the lifers! Very interesting to learn about the BH and what the farm is doing to help it, and other wildlife. Good for them! :-)

Ragged Robin said...

Millymollymandy - Thanks so much - I felt like squealing at the time too :) Actually believe I did a little jig I was so excited :)

It was good to see a farm doing so much for birds and butterflies - one of the loveliest days out this year :)

Chris Rohrer said...

These are wonderful captures Caroline!! What a special day of butterflies! I love them all but I think the Brown Argus is perhaps my favorite:) It looks like the weather has been very cooperative this year.

I would love to go butterflying with you, and some birding, down the road. Of course, we'd have desert. These are the kind of walks I really enjoy the most. Congrats on the sightings of these beauties.

Ragged Robin said...

Chris Rohrer - Thanks so much Chris. It was a very special walk for me - I have wanted to see Brown Hairstreak for years and years and it was so good to see a farm that does so much to encourage wildlife :)

I would love to go butterflying (and birding) with you too. I know you have lots of desert but some of your landscapes are just wonderful. You must let me know should you ever come to England and perhaps we could meet up.