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Meadow Beauty

PUBLISHED: 15:03 21 June 2008 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013

The male gatekeeper, which is slightly smaller and more colourful than the female

The male gatekeeper, which is slightly smaller and more colourful than the female

If you were to put a brush into a child's hand and tell them to paint something from nature, what do you think they would paint? My guess is that butterflies would feature highly, but why is that? Well, one reason is that most children have experi...

Take a stroll through a meadow or even alongside a hedgerow on a bright sunny day in June and you are bound to see a wealth of butterflies, although they're unlikely to all be the large, colourful aristocrats immortalised in our children's paintings. In fact, most of the butterflies frequenting the meadow and hedgerow are small and relatively inconspicuous, which helps them blend in with their surroundings.

The meadow is a wonderful place to sit and relax. As the cold air of the early morning lifts and the slight dew on the long grass evaporates, so the flowers open to begin their day's work. Scattered about like splashes of bright paint on a canvas, their task is to attract insects with the lure of nectar; any insect will do, so bees, wasps, hoverflies and butterflies might all spread the pollen to another flower. As the sun's rays warm the ground, the first butterflies emerge from the shelter that protected them through the night.

At first they simply lie with their wings spread to soak up the warmth, which activates their metabolism. After a few moments of pre-heating, they kick-start their circulation with a vigorous flap of the wings, the prelude to the first proper flight of the day. By mid-morning on a sunny day, butterflies add movement to the meadow, mesmerising us with their boundless activity. I find it fascinating that so many individuals of a butterfly species emerge within the space of a couple of days, particularly given the complexity of their life cycles. A meadow devoid of a particular species of butterfly one day can be alive with them the next.

In my local meadows I frequently have the company of four species of butterfly during June and July: meadow brown, ringlet, small skipper and gatekeeper. These four are particularly common in meadows because their caterpillars eat grass.

Gatekeeper

The gatekeeper ('Pyronia tithonus') is a small butterfly. In colour it is similar to a female meadow brown but is usually a brighter orange. The dark eye spot on its forewings (upper and lower sides) has two small white spots in it, which usually distinguishes it from the meadow brown. The underside of the hind wing has a pattern comprising two shades of brown and contains a number of white dots. Newly emerged gatekeepers can be very colourful when compared to the other species listed here, and they can make themselves quite obvious when basking on hedgerow plants with their wings held out. This species has a direct flight, and usually shelters in hedgerows rather than amongst grasses, although it prefers to lay its eggs on the latter. The gatekeeper is found in meadows and along hedgerows across Somerset.

Meadow brown

A medium-sized butterfly, the meadow brown ('Maniola jurtina') is slightly larger than the gatekeeper. On its upper wing the male is plain brown whereas the female has an orange patch on each wing. Both sexes show an eye spot containing one small white spot on each forewing. Underneath, the hind wing is very plain brown with just a couple of small spots, but the forewing, when visible, is orange and brown with a clear eye spot. Of these species this is the most obvious in flight, being relatively buoyant, although it stays low amongst the long grasses. The meadow brown lays its eggs on a wide range of grasses and is found commonly across Somerset in meadows with long grass.

Ringlet

A medium-sized butterfly within this group of species, the ringlet ('Aphantopus hyperantus') is predominantly a dark brown butterfly but with a pale fringe to its wings, which show dark eye spots on the back and more colourful eye spots underneath. It will bask with its wings open but is more often seen with its wings closed. This species lays its eggs on a variety of grass species. Ringlets are found in grassy places and near hedges throughout Somerset.

Small skipper

This is easily the smallest of this group. The wings of the small skipper ('Thymelicus sylvestris') are essentially golden orange with black edges, although the male has a narrow black line on the centre of its forewing. Its flight is erratic with many twists and turns, a feature that was responsible for giving this species its name. It has the unusual habit of holding its wings in a different way to other butterflies: one pair is held horizontally and the other is held at a 45° angle, rather like a jet fighter. Small skippers lay their eggs on the stems of grasses and frequently use Yorkshire fog, an attractive grass when in flower. It usually emerges a little later than the other species listed here, maybe early July.

Changing climatic conditions are having a significant impact on the timing of the butterfly's life cycle

Changing climatic conditions are having a significant impact on the timing of the butterfly's life cycle. Studies have been undertaken into the first emergence of some butterfly species, comparing data gathered over the last 50 years, and the results clearly show that butterflies are emerging earlier in the year. For butterflies surviving the winter as an egg or larva, the results reveal emergence on average more than two weeks earlier in the 1990s than in the 1970s. For those that overwinter as a pupa, the results are even more amazing, emerging on average nearly four (in some cases, six) weeks earlier than in the 1970s. The four species featured in this article overwinter as larvae and have been emerging between 11 and 18 days earlier than 20 years ago.

BY DAVID CHAPMAN

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