Gardening for Butterflies

It’s that time of year again where we head out into gardens and green spaces to spend 15 minutes observing butterflies and sending our findings to Butterfly Conservation… that’s right, it’s The Big Butterfly Count.

This year marks the 10th year of this citizen science project. Data sent in by you via their handy app feeds into long term monitoring of our British butterflies. Why is monitoring butterflies so important? Not only are they under threat and been suffering large scale declines since the 1970s, butterflies tend to react to environmental changes ahead of other species, making them brilliant indicators of upcoming environmental threats such as climate change.

As well as taking part in the Big Butterfly Count, you can help these winged beauties (and their nocturnal cousins) by making your garden lepidoptera friendly! Read on to find out ways you can garden for our British butterflies!

Ringlets copulating (Aphantopus hyperantus)

Larval Food Plants

Moths and butterflies start off life in a larval stage as a caterpillar. Adult butterflies will lay their eggs on plants which the larvae will enjoy eating and this can vary between species. Some butterflies such as the gatekeeper Pyronia tithonus, meadow brown Maniola jurtina, small heath Coenonympha pamphilus, speckled wood Pararge aegeria, large skipper Ochlodes sylvanus and wall Lasiommata megera, will lay their eggs on grasses including such as the bents Agrostis spp., Fescues Festuca spp., cocksfoot Dactylus glomerata and false brome Brachypodium sylvatica. This is why leaving your grass to grow long can be so beneficial.

The herbaceous bird’s foot trefoil Lotus corniculata is enjoyed by the larvae of the common blue Polyommatus icarus, green hairstreak Callophrys rubi and dingy skipper Erynnis tages, whilst both the green-veined white Pieris napi and the orange tip Anthocharis cardamines larvae will feed from garlic mustard Allaria petiolata.

Male orange tip

Many of the British butterflies belonging to the Nymphalinae family including the Comma Polygonia c-album, peacock Aglais io, red admiral Vanessa atalanta, small tortoiseshell Aglais urticae and painted lady Vanessa cardui all use nettle Urtica diocia as their larval food plant.

Some butterflies will lay their eggs on more than one plant, whereas others are more specialist such as the common blue Polyommatus icarus, who’s larvae only feed on kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria, and it’s these specialist butterflies which are more at risk of habitat loss. By planting native British species in your garden you can help to extend their habitat and give them a better chance of survival. – but remember, you will only attract the butterflies in your area, for example, planting milk-parsley Peucedanum palustre is unlikely to attract a swallowtail unless you live on the Norfolk Broads.

Nectar Rich Flowers

As adults many butterflies feed on a variety of nectar rich flowers – though some will feed on pollen, tree sap, rotting fruit and even animal dung! To encourage adult butterflies to your garden, plating flowers full of nectar is always a good start. Look for simple open flowers as many of the fussy ornamental garden plants are inaccessible to pollinators. Also beware of where you buy your plants from. Many garden centers and plant suppliers still treat plants with insecticides and introducing these plants to your garden will do more harm than good. If in doubt, ask the staff and buy from places which can give you a reassuring answer.

Some great native nectar plants are:

  • Hemp agrimony
  • purple loosestrife
  • bird’s-foot trefoil
  • oxeye daisy
  • red clover (but also other clovers)
  • ragwort (not as toxic as people think!)
  • red campion (likes shade)
  • aliums

Non-natives loved by butterflies include:

  • bowles mauve everlasting wallflower
  • sage
  • thyme
  • lavender
  • verbena
  • cat mint
  • Evening primrose (for moths)
  • Jasmine (for moths)

I haven’t added in buddleia here because whilst butterflies do enjoy it, it is thought that the nectar quality is pretty poor – it’s the equivalent of us having fast food over a home cooked organic meal. There are so many richer plants out there, if you have a choice, don’t reach for the buddleia.

I hope this has been useful. If you are already gardening for butterflies I would love to hear in the comments some of your tips and the butterflies you are attracting. Meanwhile, don’t forget to download the Big Butterfly Count app and take part between now and the 9th August!

X Larissa

Hawthorn

I love hawthorn or Crataegus monogyna. (Of course there is also midland hawthorn Crataegus laevigata). A member of the rose family, hawthorn is equally prickly, but it’s a wonderful all rounder and a must for any wildlife garden, hedgerow or woodland creating project – and what’s even better is it’s easy to grow.

When I was younger when my Dad would take me for walks through our local woodlands, he would call it ‘bread and cheese’ and we would pick off and eat the young shoots. They don’t particularly taste of anything, let alone bread and cheese, but have also been called ‘poor man’s bread and butter’. Over at Plant-Lore.com the different accounts back up the old thoughts that hawthorn is often believed to be unlucky, especially if you bring it into the house but to even cut one down. It is also believed to be associated with fairies.

Recent leaf burst. Jan 2020.

One thing for sure, hawthorn is a brilliant plant for wildlife. It will benefit pollinators with it’s pollen rich flowers which traditionally bloom in May (although don’t be surprised if you see them earlier now), whilst in autumn the berries – or haws – are an essential food source for birds and small mammals. When in a hedgerow hawthorn provides a nesting site for birds, and winter shelter for invertebrates, and in a woodland hawthorn brings structural diversity to the canopy, being a lower-growing shrub.

Bees love hawthorn

You can take cuttings from hawthorn too. I have found the best method is to take green cuttings in spring, cutting just below a leaf node. I use rooting powder to give it a helping hand and then pop into well draining soil and water. I then add a stick taller than the cutting, cover with a plastic sandwich bag and leave in a tray which can be watered when needed. When I have done this the success rate isn’t perfect but around 70%. This method has also worked for other hedging species.

Despite the folklore tales, hawthorn benefits from a prune and can survive coppicing too, extending the life of the individual plants. If your hedge gets a bit leggy, or too big, cutting down to the base will encourage lots of new shoots, resulting in a bushier thicker shrub. Hawthorn can even be laid to create a wonderful stock-proof fence.

Whether you want to encourage birds to your garden, create a wildlife friendly boundary or add structure to a woodland planting scheme – hawthorn is the plant for you!

Hedgerows

Hedgerows

No matter the size of your greenspace there is likely room for a native hedgerow. British hedgerows have been in decline since the 1700s and continue to suffer losses through neglect, poor cutting, spraying, overstocking and even removal. Yet our hedgerows are important for many species of British wildlife.

Hawthorne Crataegus monogyna

130 BAP (biodiversity action plan) species are associated with hedges, as are over 1500 insects including many important pollinators. Bats use hedgerows for commuting and foraging, stag beetle larvae can live in the dead wood, dormice spend most of their time following spring emergence in the bushy branches and great crested newts take refuge at the base.

If you don’t have a hedgerow, or the one you have is a bit gappy, there’s still time to get planting as the planting season runs from Oct-March. There are many options on which species you can plant, and the Woodland Trust offers packages of hedging whips of local provenance (and so reducing the biosecurity risk of importing plants) including free packages for schools and community projects. Hazel (Corylus avellana), hawthorn Cratagus monogyna), blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), oak (Quercus robur), sweet chestnut (Castanaea sativa), field maple (Acer campestre), elder (Sambucus nigra), holly (Ilex aquifolia), crab apple (Malus sylvestris), and ash (Fraxinus excelsior) all make great hedging shrubs. I like to add in dogrose (Rosa canina), guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), and spindle (Eunonymous europaeus) for colour.

Spindle Eunonymous europaeus

It’s recommended to plant hedgerows in two rows with plants approximately 30cm apart (or 6 per metre) with the plants zig-zagging to keep the gaps smaller. By doing this you will create a nice dense hedgerow which could later be laid making it an ideal stock-proof boundary, and if managed well, will probably outlive you!

Once you have your hedgerow it is important to care for it. Hedgerows benefit from being cut, by doing so you encourage new growth and extend the life of the plants and the size of the hedge will determine the way you do this. I love hand pruning smaller hedgerows finding it therapeutic, especially on a bright winter’s day when the birds have started singing again. If your hedges are meters long or are field boundaries, you can still hand prune the hedge however this may not always be practical.

Instead you could use a flail which is the most common method for longer hedgerows, although they may damage stems greater than 2.5cm, weakening the hedgerow. Using a tractor mounted circular saw can avoid this. Whichever method you choose, it’s important to consider the shape you’re cutting to – the ideal is an A-shape of around 2m high and 1.5m wide at the base. You can top this if you wish, but not doing so allows some tree species to grow tall.

Red campion Silene diocia

Cutting should be carried out on a rotation of approximately 2-3 years (though cutting season has finished now to allow birds to nest). Many invertebrate species such as the skippers overwinter in hedgerows as eggs, cocoons or in dead stems and cutting on rotation allows these species to survive.

Other ways you can help wildlife include leaving dead wood in situ, maintaining hedge banks and ditches, and enhancing the ground flora. Emorsgate have some wonderful hedgerow seed mixes for wildflowers and grasses suited to semi-shade and the you can buy quantities appropriate for your hedge, whether just a couple of meters or entire field margins! I’ve used them many times with great success.

Hedge woundwort Stachys sylvatica

Originally written for The Harrowing Times (Norfolk smallholders training group).

The Species Recovery Trust

The Species Recovery Trust is a charitable organisation headed up by Dominic Price, the Trust’s director, working to the primary aim to ‘remove 50 species from the edge of extinction in the UK by the year 2050’. The team at the Species Recovery Trust does this alongside volunteers by combining scientific knowledge and effective conservation practices. The species targeted are a mix of both plants and animals and include some of the rarest in the UK. These include invertebrates such as Cicindela campestris – Green Tiger Beetle, Erotides cosnardi – Cosnard’s Net-winged Beetle and Hagenella clathrata – Window-winged Caddis Fly as well as these plants: Carex depauperata – Starved Wood-sedge, Gentianella campestris – Field Gentian and Lycopodiella inundata– Marsh Clubmoss. Head over to their website to find out more about the important work they are carrying out.

As well as being super-awesome species protectors, the Trust also offers a range of ecological training courses aimed at people wanting to develop their skills in  identification and ecological practices. I have been lucky to have attended a few courses with Dominic including the winter tree identification and grasses identification courses held within the Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Garden, and can highly recommend these to anyone who is able to sign up to one (some of the courses are already fully booked).

One of the other fantastic resources offered by The Species Recovery Trust are their two field guides. Both are excellent guides to have with you when out on a survey. You can preview a sample of the grass ID book here. The grass ID book comes out with me on every field trip and is a wonderful compliment to the somewhat more picture-less (and heavier!) Stace. The descriptions are very clear and concise without using too much complicated terminology so it’s also perfect for beginners as well as seasoned botanists too. You can purchase both books in their shop.

IMG_9182 1

My own copy of the Grass Identification book. It’s ace!

I’d like to thank Dominic for a kind donation of Wildflower Seeds which will be available as freebies at the Royal Norfolk Show next week. To come and get yours, head over to the new horticultural area to  find the pollinator garden and come and say hello!

Finally, here’s a link to a quick video showing you how to identify some British grasses, give it a go! It’s not as daunting as you might think!

 

x Larissa

The Species Recovery Trust is a charitable organisation. If you’d like to support them with their work, I’m sure any donations would be greatly appreciated. You can find out more on how to support them over on their website here.