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Besotted by Butterflies

painted lady butterfly

photos and article by Dom Zmarty

Until fairly recently I’d never paid that much attention to butterflies. Of course, you see them flitting around the garden or when otherwise out and about. You get to recognise the more common varieties. Peacock, Red Admiral, Tortoiseshell, Orange Tip.

Their emergence in the spring heralds the onset of better weather to come (well, hopefully!) and a summer season to look forward to. They add splashes of flying colour to the landscape to catch your interest for a few moments at least. Then quite by chance I got involved, through the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, in the local chapter of the national Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. It’s been running for around 40 years and is intended to monitor trends in butterfly populations. Once a month, through the spring, summer and autumn, I walk a ‘transect’, an area of possible butterfly habitat, to record the type and numbers of different butterflies seen on that stretch on that day. Since getting involved it has opened up a whole new field of interest for me - butterflies are indeed fascinating!

Dark green fritillary butterfly

Combined with an interest in photography, a few hours (or more) out looking for butterflies is a splendid way to spend time.

I know that for some they are just those flying white nuisances that lay their eggs on your brassicas and ruin the whole crop. And of course, given the chance, they will. Not out of malice you understand.

If someone put a cornucopia of edible delights in front of you and then walked off, you would go for it wouldn’t you? Deny it if you dare. That aside, they and their lifecycles can be a source of much interest and entertainment.

Occasionally sitting in the garden through the summer and autumn, my attention is drawn to them as they flit through, settling on one food plant or another for a quick boost of energy-providing nectar. What type is it? Male or female? If there are two they will often sense each other (somehow in mid-flight and from some distance) then spiral up and round each other before breaking off and going their separate ways. Mating dance? Territorial dispute? Just saying hello? Who knows, but it’s certainly entertaining. (This must sound very sad to a lot of people I guess! Why aren’t I inside watching some daytime TV or out shopping?).

Not just in the garden either. There’s the transect, which for me is along the canal between Whatstandwell road bridge and the cut off at Ambergate. My main focus is on counting butterflies, but along the route there’s always a chance of other wildlife. Visits to some of the other transect sites can also be rewarding. Not only to see a new area of Derbyshire and add it to the walks list, but to maybe spot some unusual varieties. The Wall Brown, or simply Wall as it is now commonly known, is particularly attractive and sadly in decline in the UK. Still, as temperatures in the south rise with climate change, it is moving north and if lucky, you can see it basking on some of the rock faces on a fine day at Hoe Grange Quarry. Its rarity adds to the experience. Whites, both large and small, Orange Tips, Peacocks - all quite easy to see, but a Wall is something else. Other favourites of mine so far seen are the Brimstone, abeautiful yellow butterfly, various of the Fritillaries, Comma and some of the smaller ones, such as the different types of Blue. Many others are still on the wishlist though. Exotics, like the Hairstreaks, Purple Emperor and even the mythical Swallowtail. Combined with an interest in photography, a few hours (or more) out looking for butterflies is a splendid way to spend time.

Don’t think you can get away with being happy to just watch them, or photograph them. Oh no. You then get drawn into, what are their food plants? Where do they lay their eggs and when? Where do they go in the winter? All sorts of questions spring up. One of the most fascinating for me is how on earth the caterpillar changes into the flying jewel of an adult? What goes on, chemically and biologically, in that little hard casing you sometimes see hanging up in the greenhouse or the tool shed? It is truly incredible. Imagine one of us, climbing into a sleeping bag, zipping it shut, and then a few days or weeks later emerging as - what - say a pterodactyl? No plastic surgery, no transplants, just dissolving into a kind of soup then putting yourself back together as something completely different. Utterly amazing!

So come the spring, why not spend a bit of time looking out for these beautiful insects. Even if only in your own back garden. Time well spent I reckon.

Reference information is plentiful but check out the Derbyshire Wildlife and the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme websites for starters.