How to help Butterflies in Norfolk

February 21st Forncett Nature Matters members were able to join Alan Dawson’s lovely Zoom talk on how we can stop the terrible decline of the UK butterfly population.  Alan is a recorder of butterflies in Norfolk for Butterfly Conservation, a national organisation that is embarking on a campaign to halt the desperate loss of our butterflies and moths. They ask people to register their wild spaces where these beautiful insects can feed, breed and shelter, free from pesticides. A few choice plants in a pot can really help. School grounds, community woodland and village verges where butterfly food plants can grow are all vital areas of support and our gardens in countryside and town can provide vital nectar and caterpillar food plants.

2023.02.21.Butterfly Talk.Photo Alan Dawson sm
Small Tortoiseshell Photo: Alan Dawson
Nationally there are 59 breeding species of butterfly and 38 species breed in Norfolk. We are famous for having the British sub species of the Swallowtail surviving in the Broads. They need Milk Parsley for their caterpillars to feed on and this watery plant grows there.  You could see eighteen to twenty species of butterflies in your garden if the environment is good for them. The Brimstone is the earliest and then the Small Tortoiseshell, the Peacock and the Comma. These will be over-wintering adults that have been able to hide undisturbed in a dark shed, a hollow tree, ivy or leaf litter. The Brimstone needs Buckthorn and Alder for its larvae which hide by lying on the mid-rib of these leaves.  Then there are the Spring butterflies that over-winter as pupae: the Small White, Large White, and Green Veined White, followed in April by the Orange Tip and the Holly Blue. The pretty Holly Blue, a recent arrival in Norfolk, lays its Spring brood of eggs on Holly and its Summer brood on Ivy. Alan showed slides of the Green Veined White and the Orange Tip and Holly Blue.  The lovely Orange Tips,(the females do not have orange tips to their wings!), spend ten months as pupae. These butterflies feed on Sweet Rocket, Garlic Mustard, also known as Jack by the Hedge, and Honesty.

 We also have in Norfolk, on heath-land such as Kelling, Buxton Heath and East Ruston Common, the Silver Studded Blue that has an extraordinary life-cycle. The male has bright blue wings, rimmed in black with white edges and silver spots on the hind wings, while the females have brown upper wings with orange spots on the hind wing. The female lays eggs only once a year between June and August in the vicinity of ants nests because her species has a mutual symbiotic relationship with two kinds of black ants. When the caterpillars hatch the ants transport them to their nests and farm them for the sugars they excrete. The ants keep the larvae clean and at a constant temperature and carry them out to feed on the leaves of Ling and Bell Heather, Gorse and Bird’s Foot Trefoil. This is done at dusk and the ants guard them against predators including other ants. The ants allow the caterpillars to pupate in their nest and take them out to the heath-land when they emerge.

The Painted Lady is a beautiful migrant from North Africa. When they arrive in the UK they choose thistles and Hemp Agrimony as food plants. They can be seen in August at Warham Camp, a Neolithic dwelling site in North Norfolk.  In high summer, if we are lucky, the immigrants from Europe, Peacocks and Red Admirals, arrive feeding on nettles and brambles. So if you want beautiful butterflies in your garden keep a patch of nettles.

Peacock butterfly.Photo C Sharp Peacock Butterfly Photo: Carol Sharp

Our gardens can be havens and places of survival for butterflies. Planting Marjoram, Verbena bonariensis, perennial wallflowers, like Bowles Mauve, Buddlejas, of which there are a profusion of beautiful varieties, and Lavenders can help their survival by providing the nectar they need. The handsome ‘weeds’ including nettles, grasses and brambles, that Alan mentioned are vital food plants for the caterpillars. Sallows, Buckthorns, Holly and Ivy are important food plants too.

 Alan recommended a very user-friendly app - iRecord Butterflies  which is a really good way of improving your ID skills. You can send your sightings to Butterfly Conservation at any time, which is a helpful way of saying thank you to them for the valuable conservation work they’re doing. Your data will be added to their Norfolk map.

 Alan’s talk was recorded and you can enjoy it here

Alan says “My role on the committee of the Norfolk Branch of Butterfly Conservation is Transect Coordinator.  Transects are set routes, mainly on managed land, that are walked weekly from April to September, with the butterflies encountered being counted.  We have about 60 of these in Norfolk and they feed in to a national scheme that helps keep track of British butterfly numbers as well as what is happening in Norfolk.  One of the things I do is to analyse the results from the 50,000 or so butterflies that are counted in Norfolk in a year.”


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