Spot our rare and beautiful butterfly species in the glorious Somerset countryside
PUBLISHED: 00:41 28 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:17 20 February 2013
Get out and about this month to see Somerset's beautiful butterflies dancing a flittering, fluttering ballet. National Trust wildlife expert Matthew Oates identifies some <br/><br/>of our rarer species
Dancers in the Breeze
Somerset is a great county for butterflies. It is also unique in terms of its butterfly populations, as no other county has the same list of resident species. However, several of our countys rarest and loveliest butterflies are in severe decline, and some have recently become extinct here. All is far from lost, though, as conservation organisations and landowners are working hard together to rescue the situation, which by and large is not irretrievable. There are still several expanses of butterfly-rich landscape in the county, which are of national importance for butterflies notably the Blackdowns, the Mendips, the Poldens and the heathy slopes around Porlock. Best of all, Somerset is hosting the most spectacular butterfly conservation success story in the country, and possibly in the world.
The Return of the Large Blue
The dark and dusky large blue died out in Somerset in the early 1950s and nationally in 1979. It has been brought back from the dead, though, by a dynamic conservation partnership that includes government nature conservation organisations, the charity Butterfly Conservation, the Somerset Wildlife Trust and the National Trust. Millfield School, The J & F Clark Trust and Network Rail are also land-owning partners in the project in Somerset.
Large blue butterflies were carefully imported from Sweden and released on a nature reserve near Somerton. From there, other deliberate releases took place locally and, crucially, the butterfly has also spread by itself. It is now thriving in the Poldens, so much so that those hills must be of global importance for this endangered species. However, even there the butterfly remains vulnerable, having precise requirements and being very much at the mercy of the weather.
Most of the Polden colonies are small and access is often difficult, but the Somerset Wildlife Trust arranges open days at its Green Down reserve and the National Trust runs Collard Hill, near the Butleigh Monument, as an open access site for the large blue during June. If you have yet to see the Collard Hill large blues then do so soon. It is a wonderful experience and you will be warmly welcomed.
Somerset is an important county for the beautiful orange and black-chequered fritillary butterflies. Sadly, the rare and declining high brown and pearl-bordered fritillaries may just have become extinct in the county, and the marsh fritillary and minute Duke of Burgundy are very much in decline. A massive conservation effort has rescued the lovely and dark heath fritillary from a parlous state on east Exmoor. It is now thriving in several of the combes that radiate off Dunkery Beacon, largely on National Trust land, flying during June.
On rough ground in the Mendips, and locally elsewhere, the fast and agile dark-green fritillary is still quite numerous in July, flying in the same places as the delicate small pearl-bordered fritillary. The giant silver-washed fritillary is still numerous in many of the countys woods during July and August. Curiously, the Glanville fritillary, a denizen of the Isle of Wight cliffs, has been unofficially established on National Trust land at Sand Point. Many butterfly enthusiasts visit to see this rarity there in May and early June. The Trust is happy for the butterfly to remain there, as long as it does not require special management attention.
Browns and Whites
Rocky places in the Mendips are home for grayling in July and August, a local butterfly of bare ground, and the nationally declining wall brown. In rough grassland, almost throughout the county, the distinctive marbled white occurs, flying during July, often in the company of the sooty ringlet and the ubiquitous meadow brown.
August is the month of the cabbage white, of which there are actually two species, large and small. Our gardens abound with them, as they seek out buddleia bushes for nectar. Barrington Court garden is a particularly good place for them, as the head gardener grows patches of nasturtiums especially for their caterpillars.
Into the Future
Butterflies are very much part of the Somerset experience, both in our countryside and in our gardens. The poet John Masefield described them as the souls of summer hours. He was right. The key to their conservation is in us valuing them adequately, for once we recognise what they mean to us, the rest will follow.
Matthew Oates is one of the National Trusts wildlife experts, and has a particular passion for butterflies. He was born and bred in Crewkerne and knows and loves Somerset well.
Join the Big Butterfly Count this summer
Running from 24 July to 1 August 2010, The Big Butterfly Count is a major new nationwide survey to assess the health of our environment. Butterflies are valuable indicators of the environment but many species are declining rapidly. The survey, run by the Butterfly Conservation in association with Marks & Spencer as part of their Plan A commitments to encourage sustainable agriculture and help to protect the environment, will help build up a picture of the
changes taking place in our towns, cities and countryside.
Sir David Attenborough and Alan Titchmarsh have given their enthusiastic backing.
An identification chart and full details are available at www.bigbutterflycount.org.