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Butterflies in Decline – how can you help?

Through the summer months we can see many butterflies on the wing around the woods. They are currently enjoying a prolonged spell of warm weather and, each year, they bring us the sight of bright colours on their intricately patterned wings while flitting and basking in the sun. Moths and butterflies are unusual in the world of flying insects, with their wings covered with coloured patterns of tiny scales, we have given them their name, Lepidoptera, which translates as “wings with scales”. These miscellaneous mottles are used for many reasons from attracting a mate to creating camouflage or deterring predators and the scales can even save their lives, allowing the insects to slip away from a spider’s web.

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There are currently around 59 species of butterfly around the UK, but each year, their numbers are dropping, and this worrying decline is something we can all do something about. In July, Megan Lowe from Butterfly Conservation visited Fingle Woods to show a group of volunteers how to identify woodland butterflies and develop the skills to start a regular survey of the various species found at Fingle.

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The training day started with a look at some of the species of butterflies that might be seen at different times of year. One of the early starters is the orange tip which spends time along many verges and woody margins, or the bold and beautiful brimstone that provides a bright flash of yellow in the dappled springtime woods. One of the more unusual species around Fingle is the small pearl-bordered fritillary which is enjoying a good year as the dry weather is suiting them. Megan explained that, “they may even be having a second brood this year, as long as the dog violets are still around.” Each species requires a certain range of food plants to be available, and the conservation work in some areas of Fingle will encourage violets to spread around the woods.

Continuing with the identification training, the volunteers studied some of the more recognisable butterflies like the red admiral and the peacock while learning how to differentiate between the large skipper and the small skipper. The relative size of these species only really helps if they are side-by-side, so this is where subtle colour variations will help to tell them apart. There are also several similar butterflies known as the “browns”. These include the meadow brown, the gatekeeper and the ringlet which can all be found at Fingle throughout the summer.

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The second part of the day was spent among the swaying grasses of Ross Meadow in Cod Wood. Only a few years ago this rare crescent of flat ground was dominated by regenerating conifers and scrub but, with a concerted and careful conservation effort, a successful meadow habitat has been reclaimed from the rampant Douglas fir. The volunteers were shown how to use a butterfly net and were told about the different surveys that they could take part in. There is already one butterfly transect established in Fingle Woods, but the rangers are planning to set up a new one in Ross Meadow and this was a good opportunity to hone their skills.

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As the volunteers tried out the walking transect technique they needed to identify the butterflies within a 5m bubble. They came up with an impressive list including the Common blue and the much larger Silver washed fritillary.

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Other interesting invertebrates included the six-spot burnet, one of the day-flying moths. The volunteers all went home happy so, it seems, surveying these beautiful creatures has a positive effect on your well-being and recording where they are found will help with the further improvements of habitats at Fingle Woods so, please join in. Get started with the annual Big Butterfly Count that continues until 12th August this year.

Six-spot burnet


Please help our beautiful butterflies – here’s how:

For more information on butterfly monitoring and where you can help, find out about the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme and the more straight forward Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey here

Get involved in the Big Butterfly Count and submit your results before the 12th August

by Matt Parkins

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