I know the country is still in a deep freeze, but all the more reason to leap forward in our minds to imagine the forthcoming spring, summer and autumn filled with sunshine and butterflies. That, plus the prospect of birdsong and blossom, certainly helps me through this Covid marathon.
Oh, and I’m also on a promise to talk about such things. A couple of weeks ago I talked about how well different groups of creatures are doing in my garden in response to the improvements I’m trying to make to their habitats, and in the comments Russell T asked me what my 24 species of butterflies were that I had recorded.
The value of knowing what someone else is recording is that it helps you build a picture of what might be possible in your own garden or outside space.
So, here are the butterfly species I recorded last year, and also the annual totals of each to give you a sense of their relative abundance. (My counting technique is to record the maximum number of each species I see each week and then tot them up).
1 Gatekeeper 68
2 Speckled Wood 53
3 Small White 35
4 Red Admiral 34
5 Holly Blue 26
6 Common Blue 24
7 Large White 21
8 Green-veined White 18
9 Comma 17
=10 Brimstone 16
=10 Peacock 16
12 Meadow Brown 13
13 Small Copper 10
14 Orange-tip 6
15 Ringlet 4
=16 Brown Argus 2
=16 Clouded Yellow 2
=16 Purple Hairstreak 2
=16 Small Heath 2
=20 Essex Skipper 1
=20 Large Tortoiseshell 1
=20 Marbled White 1
=20 Small Skipper 1
=20 Small Tortoiseshell 1
What you’ll see from the list is how a few species are much commoner than the rest. My top four species account for just over 50% of all my sightings; the top 12 over 90%.
You’ll also notice that that there are five species that only made a single appearance – what you might call rarities or casuals.
And one of those was a national rarity – the Large Tortoiseshell. It used to be a regular breeding species in southern and central England a hundred years ago, but is now just an occasional (but maybe increasing) visitor to the UK, with still just a handful of records each year.
There are five species I’ve seen over the previous five years that didn’t make an appearance in 2020 – Painted Lady, Brown Hairstreak, Large Skipper, Small Blue and Wall – giving me a garden list of 29 species.
What I can also do with my records is see when each species appears over the course of the year. This chart shows my 2019 records of three species – Peacock, Speckled Wood and Gatekeeper.
Of the three, Peacock is out first, on sunny days in spring, because it overwinters as an adult. All it needs is spring warmth to wake it up. By mid-May, that generation is over, and it isn’t until July that their offspring emerge, which feed up but have gone into hibernation by September.
The Speckled Wood has a series of generations from spring through to autumn, such that I see adults on the wing all the way from April to October, with a peak in September.
But the Gatekeeper, my commonest garden butterfly, has just one generation each year, condensed into a very short flight period between June and August. There’s a period of about four weeks where the garden feels full of them, massed on my Marjoram plants, and then that’s them over for another year.
So, how might this help you with your garden? I would expect the general themes to be repeated in most gardens – a few species that make up the bulk of the records; a number of rarer species; but all pretty much conforming to the same annual cycles for each species.
What might be different in your is the exact suite of species, and which ones are the commonest. My garden is suburban, but it is large, with my grassy areas making it suitable for the Gatekeeper, a butterfly typically of long grass along country hedgerows.
Crucially for butterflies, I’m in southern England; the further north you go, the fewer species you can expect. So, for example, Jennifer Owen in her 30-year study of her suburban Leicester garden during 1972-2001, recorded 23 species. And for those of you in Scotland, 15 species might be a good garden total.
However, we're in the curious situation where urban butterfly numbers across the country are in decline (and need as much help as we can give them), yet climate change is allowing them to increase their range northwards. In other words, we've got fewer butterflies but spread further.
The number of species is also likely to be lower if you are more urban than rural. However, if you live near a particularly rich habitat nearby such as chalk or limestone downland or a large, open woodland, you might see some different from there into your patch.
But what we can say is that you are likely to see some butterflies in almost any garden, wherever you are. And if you plant the very best nectar plants for them (of which there are relatively few that are suitable), the more likely you are to encourage them to stop off to enjoy the feast.
So bring on spring and bring on the butterflies to cheer us all up!
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