The small skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris) is a common butterfly species on the Dorset hillsides, downland and open countryside in high summer. it has a preference for tall grasses with wild flowers intermingled and as it flies from early June through until August (even in to September in some years) it particularly favours knapweeds and thistles.
The eggs are laid on the leaves of grasses, usually Yorkshire-fog and creeping soft-grass but they also use various other species including Timothy grass and catstail. The hatched larvae build little tents for shelter by pulling several blades of grass together, this is quite typical of skipper species in general.
Very similar to the Essex skipper (which is not only found in Essex but across much of south eastern England) but is far more common and more likely to be seen. This really cannot be mistaken for other skipper species; the large skipper often occurs with the small skipper but not only is it larger it also has more distinctive markings on its wings.
Lulworth Skipper: our very own butterfly
The Lulworth skipper (Thymelicus acteon) is named after the place where it was found, Lulworth in the Isle of Purbeck, and is a butterfly exclusive to Dorset. It occurs all along the Dorset coast but most noticeably along the cliffs from Ballard Down to White Nothe Point. It once occurred on most of the Purbeck Ridge too, from Ballard Down to Lulworth but sadly it now seems to have disappeared totally from this area. Whilst is becoming scarcer, where it occurs it can be an abundant species.
The other thing with Lulworth skipper seems to be that it is emerging as an adult sooner than it used to. It used to be around only for a couple of weeks in early August but now reports in mid June are not uncommon. Their time on the wing has extended and they can be still seen in August.
The main feature of this little member of the skipper family are the rays of golden sunshine on the wings! It is about the same size as its two close relatives, the small skipper and the Essex skipper and so those golden rays are important as a diagnostic feature. Whilst the adult insect loves to feed on knapweed (as in this photo) it can also be frequently seen on other members of the thistle family as well as restharrow and wild marjoram. The larvae feed on many species of grass, especially tor-grass, which is why rough downland suits it as its preferred environment.
An increasingly rare butterfly with specific habitat requirements and found only on Fontmell Down.
Large Skipper: a vein creature
The large skipper (Ochlodes venata) is the most common member of the skipper family and can be found on grasslands, open spaces and especially on the edges of woodland where there is lots of shrubby vegetation. Adults can be seen throughout most of the summer from June until early September.
The Latin name of venata gives a clue as how to identify this butterfly as the male has a dark, almost black vein running across the fore wings. It is also rather patchy, an orange and brown pattern whereas the other common skipper, the small skipper has a much more consistent orange all over the wings with a dark border. Naturally the large skipper is also larger than the small skipper!
The male large skipper can be quite territorial, a bit like a dragonfly, settling on a prominent piece of vegetation in the middle of its patch and then swiftly launching itself to deter intruders.
The food plants of the large skipper larvae are cocks-foot and slender false-brome, both common grasses.
Dingy Skipper: unfairly accused
My dictionary defines dingy as lacking brightness; drab, dirty, discoloured. Whilst the dingy skipper (Erynnis tages) does not have the beautiful colouring of many of our more familiar butterfly species nonetheless, close up, it does have a unique and subtle colouring. I think the common name is some what unfair!
On the wing in May and June, with a possible second brood here in Dorset in late August, the dingy skipper can be seen where birds-foot trefoil grows and in Dorset that means almost anywhere! It is much more common than many think and can be found in quarries, on open rough ground, edges of woodland, even on heathland; it is particularly associated with chalk and limestone.
Whilst possibly being a somewhat overlooked species the dingy skipper can also be easily confused with day flying moths like mother Shipton or burnet companion, especially as it often rests, like a moth, with its wings open. Indeed, it is rarely seen with its wings closed above its back like other skipper species.
Well worth looking out for, it is not really dingy at all in my opinion.
Grizzled Skipper: streaks of grey
The grizzled skipper (Pyrgus malvae) is a far from common species, it may be overlooked of course but I see it only very occasionally. Dorset is one of its strongholds as it likes flowery downs and slopes and so the Purbeck Ridge and the sea cliff tops at places like Durslton and Portland Bill are good places to find them. They are quite a small butterfly and tend to fly close to the ground preferring soil and rocks as resting places.
They have two broods here in the south. The first brood fly in May and June and the second brood briefly in September. They lay their eggs on wild strawberry where possible but later in the season and in September when there is no wild strawberry they use other related plants like creeping cinquefoil, silverweed, bramble and wild raspberry, all members of the rose family.
The grizzled skipper is one of the few butterflies that overwinters as a hibernating pupae.
Grizzle has several meanings but something 'grizzled' is streaked or mixed with grey which is an appropriate name for this butterfly. Looking at my hair I suppose that makes me grizzled too now?
Clouded Yellow: the green-eyed monster
Although we get an influx of immigrant clouded yellows (Colias crocea) in most years it always gives me bit of a thrill to see one. I suppose, when you first glimpse one, you know you have seen something slightly out of the ordinary. Some years they can be seen in good numbers; other years you barely see one! Occassionally we get an absolute invasion of them. They originate from northern Africa and southern Europe.
Being on the south coast Dorset is the first landfall for some of the incoming insects and you can see clouded yellows here at almost any time from late summer right through until November if the weather remains warm. In some years they arrive earlier and those adults lay eggs which hatch out to give even greater numbers when the autumn arrivals hit land. Sadly, any eggs laid by the autumn team are doomed to die when the temperatures drop later in the winter.
Seeing one close up under the camera lens one can't help but be struck by its large green eyes and its brown toupee!
Brimstone butterfly: bucking the trend
The brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni)is unique in several ways. Firstly, it has an almost unpronounceable and unspellable scientific name, Gonepteryx rhamni!
Secondly, its larvae feed exclusively on alder buckthorn and purging buckthorn which are generally found in open chalk downland areas and yet the brimstone is plentiful here in Purbeck where these buckthorns are not common. They are frequent visitors to our garden where there is certainly no buckthorn at all and it is believed that they do travel great distances.
Thirdly, whilst some species like the red admiral, peacock and small tortoiseshell do hibernate most of our main early specimens of these species are immigrants from Europe. The brimstone, however, is a specialist at hibernating and our first sightings in early spring are those that have seen the winter through in hibernation. When at rest the wings have a remarkable resemblance to ivy leaves and it is generally in ivy that they hibernate undetected thanks to this camouflage.
Brimstone is the old name for sulphur and the male's vivid bright yellow colouring gives rise to the common name. The female is white and is often assumed to be an early large white but, of course, it lacks the black on the wings that the large white has.
What a lovely sight these butterflies are on a warm spring day; a true joy to behold.
Large white: eat your greens
In some years you can see clouds of large white (Pieris brassicae) butterflies, in other years far fewer. Obviously the summer weather will play its part but not always as this is a species, like several others, where the numbers can be boosted by significant inward migration from Europe. It is one of those butterflies you can expect to see at any time in the spring, throughout the summer and in to the autumn as it can have three broods a year here in the south.
As a species that lays its eggs on plants of the crucifereae family, in other words cabbages, it is much persecuted and chemical warfare is raged against it. This species is certainly far less common than thirty years ago although this might also be due to the fact that very few of us grow our own vegetables in our gardens these days. The insect over winters as a pupa and can hatch in April to give us the first brood but usually it will be well in to May before we see them.
As you would expect, it is larger than the small white and has darker and clearly visible black wing tips and spots. It may only be a cabbage white but actually, on closer inspection, they are like all butterflies, beautiful.
Small white: guilty by association
Although despised by gardeners the small white (Pieris rapae) is far less of a problem on brassicas than its bigger cousin, the large white; I guess it is a case of guilty by association! The small white is a common species that often visits gardens and can be it difficult to tell apart from other whites when in flight as they just look white and they could be green-veined white or even large white. They have, however, a different flight than the more fluttery female orange tip.
Once they settle it is a little easier to tell them apart from other similar whites as one can see the size better and it is noticeably smaller than the large white and, of course, the green-veined has its distinctive ... green veins! The female small white has two black spots on the fore wing whereas the male can be much more variable. The black markings are less pronounced than on the large white.
The first brood is on the wing in June but by mid July the second brood will hatch and will be flying until late August. In good years we can even get a third brood in September and October. On top of this there is also an inward migration during the year which can boost numbers.
Green-veined white: in a different vein
At first sight you may think that this is a small white but if it is in your garden you need have no worries. The green-veined white (Pieris napi) is certainly a close relative of the small white but it feeds exclusively on wild crucifereae plants such as garlic mustard, cuckooflower, wild radish and so on so your greens are safe!
The green-veined white has two broods and the first flies throughout May. There will be a subsequent brood, here in the south at least, flying in August and September.The second brood isfond of other plants too, they especially go for thistles and members of the daisy family.
It is a problem positively identifying this butterfly in flight but as soon as it lands and closes its wings the green markings, that is the veins, on the underside of the wing can be seen from some way off. It is now quite a common butterfly; indeed I think, at times, it is now more common that the small white which is remarkable as the small white was once undoubtedly a very common butterfly.
Orange-tip: watch it flutter by
If you watch birds for long enough over the years you come to know many species without really looking at them, there is just something that you know is characteristic of that species. A word was coined to sum that up - jizz; it just is! The jizz of a species is not confined to birds though, it can apply to insects too, even plants to a degree!
One such insect is the orange-tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines). If you watch them carefully you will notice that they have a very skittish flight. I can not find a suitable way to describe it, but take a look and I think you will see what I mean. Other white butterflies tend to have a very direct flight.
The male orange-tip is very distinctive and cannot be confused with anything else but the female lacks the orange tips to its wings, instead the tips are black and so it can be mistaken for a small white (although small whites fly later in the year, usually after the orange-tip has finished). At rest you can see the beautiful marbled pattern on the underside of the wing of both sexes which is unique to this species.
Orange-tip butterflies emerge in early April for another season. Sadly, in my view, they only have one brood a year and we see them for just a short period of about six weeks each spring. It has two main food plants for laying its eggs on, both of which come in to flower at the same time as the adult orange-tip emerges. The first is garlic mustard (also known as Jack-by-the-hedge) and the other is cuckooflower (or lady's smock). As a result, the best place to see orange-tips is along woodland edges, hedgerows or damp, marshy pasture. Passage insects will often fly through gardens too.
The orange-tip is a primarily a southern species of butterfly and is quite common in Dorset.
Green Hairstreak: master of disguise
The green hairstreak (Callophrys rubi) is the only truly green British butterfly and so it is unmistakable, provided you see it in the first place that is. Being green and leaf shaped they are extremely well camouflaged and they have a fast fluttery flight so they quite often go undetected. However, it is a really lovely butterfly and a joy to behold.
They are generally in flight from about the middle of May until the end of June. Many years go by without me seeing them at all but in 2011, for example, by the end of May I had already seen them at three different locations. Those were my first sightings in Dorset since I moved here in 2006.
The green hairstreak is associated with the edges of woodland, scrub, heath and downland, anywhere there are plenty of shrubs about. Here in Dorset they should be seen in all sorts of places but, sadly, this does not seem to be the case. This might be a species that could benefit from better springs should the climate change that way.
An elusive butterfly that spends most of its life in the canopy of ash trees and so is rarely seen.
An elusive butterfly that spends most of its life in the canopy of oak trees; difficult to see and harder to photograph.
Small Copper: butterfly not policeman
Open grassy fields, downland and even heathland are the places to look for the brilliantly coloured small copper (Lycaena phlaeas) butterfly. It is not that common but it is widespread and is not unusual in suitable habitat in Dorset.
It is an unusual butterfly in that it has three broods a year, possibly even four in hot years with an Indian summer. That means that you can see them any time from May right through to November. In good years there will be more adults flying from the later broods so they seem far more common in late summer. The larvae feed on sorrel and other species of dock and then overwinter as a larvae which hibernates. Sadly, the small copper really suffers in bad weather and that can have a significant impact on population levels.
A real treat to behold when it opens its wings to soak up the warmth of the sun.
Small Blue: hide and seek
The small blue (Cupido minimus) is certainly a small butterfly; indeed it is the smallest British butterfly with each wing is little more than 1/4 inch across so my photo may be a little misleading. Whilst it is small it is not blue however! This is the male which has just a hint of blue on a charcoal background whereas the female lacks the hint of blue altogether. It has no other markings on the upper side of the wing but does have the light coloured border like most of the other members of the family.
Small blues are hard to find for a variety of reasons. Firstly, their size means they are easily over looked. Then they have a very short season flying for a couple of weeks around the end of May and beginning of June although there is a partial second brood here in the south towards the end of August. Thirdly, they are quite rare, found in very few locations and in Dorset we have small colonies at Durlston and on Portland; there maybe elsewhere but I am not aware of any. Finally, they live in little pockets just a few yards across; they favour small patches of kidney vetch. It is possible to be in the right place at the right time and yet miss them because they are so limited in range.
Going looking for the small blue? The very best of luck!
Silver-studded Blue: a hundred eyes
Dorset is home to a number of very rare butterflies and the silver-studded blue (Plebejus argus) is certainly one of them. Argus was a giant with a hundred eyes; the silver-studded blue is hardly a giant and does not have a hundred eyes on the underside of its wing but those numerous black and silver studs on the wings are almost certainly how it came by its Latin name. It is a small butterfly being smaller than a common blue and with much brighter markings on the underside of its wings. On the top of the wings the silver-studded blue has quite a noticeable black margin.
This a species with quite a distinctive preference in habitat however, as a heathland butterfly and can be found from late June until early August on the heaths of Purbeck, notably at Arne. It also occurs on limestone grass downland and can be found on Portland. Being primarily a heath specialist, it is not surprising that its favoured food plants are gorse and broom and the larvae also feed on heather and birds-foot trefoil.
Blue butterflies are, in general, exquisitely beautiful insects and the silver-studded blue is certainly one of the best.
Brown Argus: the brown blue.
The brown argus (Aricia agestis) is far from common and was, for many years, thought to be in decline because of its dependence on chalk and limestone grassland. However, more recently, it seems to have adapted to other habitats and so now appears to be seen a little more and in more varied places.
Despite being brown it is a member of the blues! The females of many blue butterflies are brown but the brown argus is quite a small butterfly; both sexes have a deep brown colouring to the wings and has very clearly defined orange dots that go along the complete edges of the wings. Not easy to identify in flight, you need to see it at rest or feeding to be sure.
The species has two broods a year which seem to overlap and so you can find brown argus from May right through until mid-September.
Common Blue: peas and beans
Blues can be tricky chaps to sort out; the silvery underside with orange dots is a familiar feature amongst many of the family. You have to take various factors in to account when separating them.
The common blue (Polyommatus icarus) is on the wing from early June right through until late October as they have more than one brood which overlap giving an almost continual presence during the summer and early autumn. Other similar species tend to be more limited in their flying season.
The common blue is certainly more common than most other species of blue (unless you are in Purbeck where, in places, the Adonis blue is now as common, if not more so) and so it is the most likely one you will see. It likes rough, open ground, especially chalk downland, where they can find an abundance of clovers, medicks, trefoils, restharrows and other leguminous flowers; other species tend to be a bit more restricted in their preferences. In good years, population wise, it is not uncommon for this butterfly to find its way into gardens.
Finally, size can help too; the common blue larger than most of the other frequently encountered blue species but still a little smaller than the Adonis blue. Remember, too, that the Adonis has a much more vivid blue colouration.
Chalkhill Blue: my number one
Sadly the chalkhill blue (Lysandra coridon) has declined significantly in recent years as its preferred habitat of sunny chalk and limestone hillsides have been lost to agriculture. Where it does occur, however, it can be plentiful during the month of August.
The males are seen more often than the females and are likely to be found feeding in small groups on purple flowers such as knapweed and thistles. The males are unmistakable being quite large and a silvery-blue colouring with black markings. The females are much more secretive and are brown with a few orange dots along the edges of the wings.
The chalkhill blue is very much a species of southern England and in Dorset they can be seen on Fontmell Down in big numbers as well as on Bindon Hill near Lulworth. I try not to have favourites but I have to confess that the chalkhill blue is my number one butterfly, a true beauty.
Adonis Blue: the beautiful man.
When you see so many Adonis blue (Lysandra bellargus) out on the Dorset cliffs and downs it is hard to believe this is a nationally rare species as it is right on the northern edge of its range here in Britain. At times during the year here they are more numerous than the common blue.
When we first moved to Dorset in 2006 I was worried that I would not be able to tell the difference between the Adonis and common blues. Actually, once you have seen the brilliant blue of the Adonis you will not mistake the species thereafter. I don't think the camera really does the colour justice. I have taken many photos of the Adonis blue and none really seem to truly reflect the stunning colour. What this photo does show however, is that on the Adonis the black veins in the wing run through the white edge, the only blue that this occurs on. The Adonis is also larger than the common blue.
There are two broods each year, one in the spring, usually May and another in August. There is masses of horseshoe vetch on the cliffs here and as that is the sole food plant of the Adonis larvae so where there is horseshoe vetch you may find the Adonis blue.
Adonis was the beautiful man in Greek mythology loved by both Aphrodite and Persephone
Holly blue: the holly and the ivy ...
Is the holly blue (Celastrina argiolus) not an adorable little butterfly? Totally exquisite when seen close up with an amazing silvery under wing and bright blue upper wings although the females have black markings on the upper wings which can be confusing!
The holly blue is also a fascinating creature. The insect over winters as a pupae, usually hidden in amongst Ivy. In April they emerge, mate and lay their eggs on holly flowers. First broods will be gone by early June and then the eggs from the first brood (laid on holly) emerge, mate and lay their eggs on ivy. The larvae pupate and over winter in amongst the ivy and so the cycle continues. Second broods are only briefly on the wing in late July/early August.
Most blues are grassland species but the holly blue is, because of its affinity to the holly and the ivy, more at home in woodlands, shrubby areas and gardens. It is the most likely blue you will see in your garden in most areas.
A rare and declining species found at only one location in Dorset that has public access.
A woodland species found in mainly in ancient coppice locations.
Red Admiral: an admirable butterfly
Finding a perfect specimen of a red admiral (Vanessa atalanta), looking straight out of the chrysalis, reminded me just what striking butterflies they are. The markings are similar to the painted lady but the colours so much bolder and vivid. You cannot really mistake this species for any other butterfly, even at a disatnce.
I always look on the red admiral as a an 'English' butterfly but in fact they are largely migratory. They are extremely hardy insects and some manage to successfully hibernate and we see them emerge in early spring. By April and May we start to see an influx from the warmer south and by the late summer and early autumn we see the offspring of those early arrivals emerge along with yet more immigrants. They love to feed on rotting fruit and, depending on the weather, they can be out and about well into November and even beyond. Interestingly, there is some evidence to suggest that there is a southerly migration in autumn to warmer climes, just like some bird species.
The red admiral is so famliiar it is easy to take them for granted but we should never do that!
Painted Lady: lady of Spain
The painted lady (Vanessa cardui) is an immigrant species to this country; it originates as far away as north Africa, especially in Morroco, and are usually very common in Spain. In some years we get huge quantities of them and then we can go several years with relatively few. In May 2009 Butterfly Conservation were estimating over 2 million were coming in across the Channel every day! That was an amazing year and since then I have seen hardly any but that could change if the conditions become favourable for them.
If we get an early influx, like in 2009, the arriving insects do lay eggs that hatch and that can give us a second brood in the autumn. These, together with autumn arrivals, lay eggs but they sadly cannot stand a British winter and perish.
The painted lady is a close relative of the red admiral and the markings are incredibly similar; the painted lady has delicate shades of orange and brown whereas the red admiral is, of course, boldly marked in red and black.
Small Tortoiseshell: ups and downs
The population levels of the small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) seem to vary year on year, almost cyclical. I can clearly remember in 2002 counting fifteen on ice plants in our garden at one go, all jostling for space and a chance to get at the nectar. However, by 2012 I wrote that I was concerned by the almost non-existence of small tortoiseshells anywhere. Last year and this they seem to me to be one of our most frequently seen butterfly species again.
The reason for these ups and downs in numbers seems to be something of a mystery and Oxford University Zoology department are investigating what the reason(s) might be. One theory is that it is linked to the arrival from the continent of a small parasitic fly, Sturmia bella, in the late 1990's. The small tortoiseshell has a close relationship with the common nettle (hence the 'urticae' of the scientific name) and its caterpillars thrive on them. The fly lays its eggs on nettle leaves and the caterpillars consume them and the parasite then eats the inside of the caterpillar. This is now the most frequently recorded parasite of small tortoiseshell caterpillars killing 60% of them where present.
It may be that as small tortoiseshell adult numbers fall because of the parasitic fly there are less hosts for the fly and so the fly numbers fall allowing more caterpillars to survive to adulthood and so the process continues.
Peacock: winter shut eye
The peacock (Inachis io) is very often the first butterfly seen in our gardens each spring as they hibernate and can awake on any warm day in early spring. It will often be the off-spring of these early insects that we see later in July and August and the peacock should be a common sight right through until October, perhaps even beyond.
The food plant for the larvae of the peacock is the common, or stinging, nettle but the adults will nectar at any suitable flower including thistles and knapweeds. The peacock is a very common butterfly in Dorset and can be seen in grassy habitats everywhere including gardens, hedgerows, woodland rides and glades, as well as on our chalk downlands and cliffs.
Those large eyes on the wings are unmistakable.
Comma: punctuation marks
A comma (Polygonia c-album) butterfly in our garden always causes a bit of excitement. At first sight it is somewhat like a fritillary and to have a fritillary of any description in the garden would be immense! That said, the comma is such a lovely insect it is always welcome. It gets its name from the distinctive white comma shape on the underside of the wing.
Commas can actually be seen from January to December depending on the weather. They over winter by hibernating as adults and can emerge on any day in winter if the weather is encouraging. These insects that have hibernated lay eggs in April and May and these then form the first brood and laying eggs that hatch around July and August to provide the second brood. The second brood are the insects that will then hibernate until the following spring.
The food plant of the comma larvae is primarily the common, or stinging, nettle but it is also found on all sorts of shrubs and trees and, apart from gardens, you can encounter the comma almost anywhere as it favours open areas as well as woodland edges. Once uncommon the comma has done well in recent years and can now be seen frequently across the whole county.
A rare species now in Dorset found at onlly a couple of sites.
Dark-green Fritillary: flap flap glide
Three things stand out for me with the dark-green fritillary (Argynnis aglaia) which can help with identification as fritillaries can be quite difficult to tell apart unless you get a good view of them.
Firstly, the dark-green fritillary is very much a butterfly of open chalk grassland and downs where there are good quantities of flowering plants to nectar on whereas the other fritillaries would not be seen in such surroundings. Secondly, the dark-green fritillary has a very strong, direct flight and has intermittent glides between wing beats. I am not sure any other species of butterfly actually does this. Finally, it is not dark green! Well, not at first sight at least. This is a wonderful large, orange and brown species but, if you see it at rest on a flower you will see the underside of the wing is, indeed, partly dark green.
You can see these stunningly beautiful butterflies in suitable habitat in July and August but be prepared, the males can wander far and wide looking for a mate and so they could actually turn up almost anywhere!
Silver-washed Fritillary: barking up the right tree
I always have a sense of excitement when I first see a silver-washed fritillary (Argynnis paphia). It is such a beautiful creature; a large butterfly with intricate markings and is an absolute joy to behold. It is essentially a butterfly of woodlands, especially areas of well established woodland, both deciduous and coniferous.
This is certainly a butterfly of the south and there are several sites in Dorset where it can still be found. It may not be as common as it once was perhaps, but where it does occur it can be quite numerous, especially at the peak of its flight time, July and in to August. It has just the one brood each year and the eggs are laid in the crevices of tree bark (notably oak) and that is where the larvae return to to hibernate before emerging as adult butterflies the following summer.
It often appears in a darker olive green form which can be mistaken for a different species. It is believed up to 15% of females have this colouring and it is known as the valezina form
Marsh Fritillary: a bit of a devil around scabious
The beautifully marked marsh fritillary (Eurodryas aurinia) is a nationally scarce species found mainly in southern Britain and Dorset has a small number of sites where it can still be seen. Although the 'marsh' fritillary it is not generally found in marshes, well not in Dorset at least, but usually in rough, damp grassland where its larval food plant, devil's-bit scabious, can be found.
It is not a strong flyer and tends to stay together in small colonies which is one of the reasons for its decline, along with draining and improvement of grassland for agricultural purposes. It can be seen here from late April through until the end of May.
Speckled Wood: spots before the eyes
Be it early spring, mid-summer or even late autumn, sunshine means that the speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) will be out and about. You can see adult speckled wood butterflies at any time from March through to October as they have multiple broods, possibly four or even five, each year. The insect over winters as either a larva or pupa, almost according to choice (the only British species that does this) and so emerge in to adults as soon as the spring weather is warm enough.
This is very much a butterfly of the dappled shade of woodland rides, shady lanes and gardens with trees. They have a lovely pattern of spots and eyes on their wings reflecting their preferred habitat.
This is now a common butterfly across Dorset and will be found in quite reasonable numbers in mid summer and yet I find that many people I lead on walks are not familiar with it, it is often overlooked. It is certainly more common now than it was forty years ago.
Wall Brown: up the wall!
I remember a time when it was no great thing to see another wall brown (Lasiommata megera); that is not the case now. We, in Purbeck, are fortunate to see them regularly on the sea cliffs and the Purbeck ridge but elsewhere in Dorset I believe they are now very scare, indeed nationally they are now quite rare.
We always called them the wall brown but now it seems the thing to just call them the 'wall', I do not know why as they are a member of the Satyrdae family, the browns. They are also predominantly brown with cream and orange colourings, a quite attractive butterfly.
Just as their name implies they are very fond of basking on walls and, in the bright warm sunshine of the late sping and early summer, they can be seen frequently along the dry stone walls at Durlston.
They have one brood in late May/June which then lays eggs on course grass such as cocks-foot which is then just coming in to flower. These eggs will hatch and pupate emerging as a second brood in August when numbers will probably be higher.
Marbled White: a brown but not brown
What a brilliant butterfly this is; one of my favourites! Unmistakable as a marbled white (Melanargia galathea), even from a distance. Interestingly it is not a white, it is a brown despite having no brown on it. It actually belongs to the family Satyridae to which most of our brown butterflies also belong hence the colloquial term browns.
The marbled white is a butterfly of the grass downlands, especially on chalk or limestone, so it is quite common here in Dorset and where it does occur it is usually in big numbers. It does also crop up in other places where there is long grass as its food plant is sheeps fescue, although it has been raised on many other species of grass in captivity.
Single brooded you will find it flying in late July until the middle of August.
Grayling: the forgotten one
The grayling (Hipparchia semele) is the butterfly we all forget! If asked to list the butterflies of Dorset without referring to any documentation I reckon I could name most but if I am going to forget one it will be the grayling. The grayling is very restricted in its habitat; it has preference for heath or down land with patches of bare soil, preferably near the coast. Then, it only flies for about three weeks in August so it is not on the wing for very long.
It has very dull, well camouflaged undersides to its wings. It rests with its wings closed on patches of bare earth and it so it can easily be missed. Often, it is only as you are about tread on them and they take off that their presence is revealed.
This actually quite a common species on the Dorset heaths but far less so elsewhere
Gatekeeper: on guard duty
In July we see the delightful little gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus) butterflies take to the wing. They have a relatively short season and in three weeks or so they are gone for another year.
At first glance the gatekeeper can seem superficially similar to the meadow brown but when at rest and it opens its wings it reveals this brilliant orange that the meadow brown can only dream of! It is also smaller than the meadow brown.
In days gone by this was known as the hedge brown as it is very common along hedgerows, especially around brambles. Its common name is derived from this love of brambles as brambles very often grow around farm gates and clouds of these butterflies can be found in this habitat almost as if is the gate that is the attraction, not the flowers.
In addition to bramble flowers they love wild marjoram and I have seen upwards of fifteen on a single clump of this herb on a sunny day.
Meadow Brown: a real downer
If this is not the most common of our butterflies in mid summer it is certainly one of our most widespread. The meadow brown (Maniola jurtina) uses all sorts of grass as its food plant and therefore can be seen anywhere there is grass! It does, of course, thrive on chalk downland but you can see it in open grassy areas along roadside verges, in gardens, along woodland rides or edges, in meadows, on heath, or cliffs tops. That just about covers the whole range of Dorset habitat!
Flying primarily throughout June, July and much of August, in good warm summers there will often be a second brood on the wing in September too giving an almost continuous four month period when they can be seen. Immigration of this species has been observed but it is not considered to be migratory species in any numbers.
At first glance they look a bit drab in colour but when they open their wings to sun themselves I think they are quite lovely, a perfect blend of orange and brown. The gatekeeper is similar but is smaller and has more orange and the other close relative is the ringlet that lacks any orange at all.
Ringlet: coffee with cream
The ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus) is a grass loving butterfly but prefers the fringes of grassy areas such as hedgerows, walls and woodland edges. It is particularly fond of bramble flowers, like so many butterflies, so the peak time for the ringlet is July and early August when the bramble flowers are at their best.
The ringlet is a species more common in the south of England but is now much less common down here in Dorset than it once was. It is not a rare butterfly by any means but still not one that you see every time you go walking. There is just the one brood each year with the larvae feeding on a wide range of grasses.
It may appear a rather mundane, boring butterfly compared to some being almost completely dark brown on its open wings but on closer inspection you will find dark spots surrounded by lighter ringlets which are unmistakable. However, to really appreciate the beauty of this insect look at the underside of its wings which are a much lighter brown and with the ringlets clearly visible. It is coffee and cream coloured.
Small Heath: like a closed book
The small heath butterfly (Coenonympha pamphilus) looks very much like the meadow brown only much, much smaller. It is found in similar habitat to the meadow brown and flies about the same time and so it can easily be overlooked and incorrectly recorded.
The small heath is also one of the hardest butterflies to photograph that I have so far encountered. They spend a lot of time on the ground and I am sure they can detect the vibration of people approaching and so, just as you creep up on them ready to snap they are gone. They almost always rest with wings closed too so getting a shot of the top side of their wings is pretty difficult.
The first brood flies in July and August and this is quickly followed by a second brood in September and in to October. This butterfly is common on downland and rough grassy places although is, perhaps, less common than it once was.