In praise of brown butterflies

When your mind turns to butterflies on a summer’s day, it is usually the Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, Silver-washed Fritillaries and Peacocks that flutter across the imagination. I, however, have a soft spot for a more subtle, unassuming bunch – the Browns. This group of, well, let’s face it, brown butterflies might be less showy, but their modest colouring belies a delicate charm. They also have some unexpected talents, and I’m going to sing the praises of five of the Browns.

The clever egg hider

Ringlet (photo: Amanda Scott)
Ringlet (photo: Amanda Scott)

My garden is currently home to a small population (I’ve counted up to 11) of Ringlets (Aphantopus hyperantus). As I sit watching their bobbing, tentative flight, with their deep velvety-brown wings and the fluttering and side-stepping as males and females encounter and greet each other, it’s hard to believe I once dismissed them as yet another boring Brown. They like my garden because the adults enjoy nectaring on bramble, and the females lay their eggs in long coarse grasses such as Cock’s-foot: these plants are plentiful in my rather wild spaces.

The Ringlet’s talent is the ability of the females to carefully hide their eggs by behaving seemingly carelessly: the females scatter fertilised eggs willy-nilly into the grasses. They’re not being careless of course: this method means the eggs drop to the warm undergrowth singly, and are difficult for predators to find and eat.

The ‘now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t’ butterfly

Can you see the butterfly in this photo?

Grayling

Here’s a closer photo of the same butterfly, to the right of the cropped image – it’s a bit more obvious here.

Grayling

It is, of course, the Grayling (Hipparchia semele). This is a butterfly that has perfected the art of canny disguise. In flight it is a large butterfly but, on the ground with its wings closed, the lower wings tucked behind its upper wings, the mottled colouring of the underwings makes it hard to spot. At rest it angles its wings in such a way that it barely casts a shadow, completing the disguise. They remain very still when basking – I wish I had the same patience!

The feisty butterfly

Speckled Wood (photo: Amanda Scott)
Speckled Wood (photo: Amanda Scott)

The Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) is possibly the most distinguished of the Browns in terms of patterning, with its yellow markings and eyespots.  Its dappled colouring ensures it is at home in equally dappled woodland habitats. The males are very territorial, swooping at intruders from their perch in the vegetation. They’re not easy to intimidate – I’ve been swooped at many a time by a Speckled Wood.

The cool butterfly

Meadow Brown (photo: Amanda Scott)
Meadow Brown (photo: Amanda Scott)

The Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) must be fed up at being the only one of the Browns with ‘Brown’ in its name (unless you count the alternative name for the Gatekeeper of Hedge Brown). One of our most widespread and abundant butterflies, it can occur in large numbers at some sites. It has a cool talent (one it shares with the Ringlet). Its dark colouring absorbs and retains warmth efficiently, meaning it can stay active when clouds are covering the sun and other butterflies are forced to rest.

It is possible to confuse the Meadow Brown with my next butterfly – the Gatekeeper (Pironia tithonus), but it is both browner and larger than the latter.

The guardian butterfly

Gatekeeper (photo: Amanda Scott)
Gatekeeper (photo: Amanda Scott)

This talent may be a bit fanciful on my part, suggested by the habit of this orange-brown butterfly to linger in hedgerows and gateways, along the margins of fields in the height of summer. It’s always a lovely surprise to recognise a Gatekeeper. From a distance you imagine it to be a Meadow Brown, but get closer and its brighter more fiery markings and open wings give the game away. A Gatekeeper it is is, the gentle guardian of mid-summer.

So, I encourage you all to pay attention to Brown butterflies. Not that I don’t like to see a Red Admiral or Painted Lady, and fritillaries are always a delight, but the Browns have their place as well, reminding us of the benefits and surprises of a quieter approach to life.

Find out more about the Browns, and butterflies in general, on the following websites:

Butterfly Conservation

Cornwall Butterfly Conservation

Author: Amanda Scott

Cares about wildlife, nature and ecology.

5 thoughts on “In praise of brown butterflies”

  1. Graylings are one of the species that are assessed by Butterfly Conservation as having suffered declines in both population numbers and distribution. Some of the old mining sites in Cornwall are good places to look – they have the bare earth the Graylings need for basking, and the butterfly can tolerate any pollution. I saw them this year on Newlyn Downs, and last year at Bissoe Downs, both ex-mining sites. Love them!

  2. Thanks, I had read the basking on bare earth traits before, but had forgotten about it. Interesting how they can adapt to pollution as well, but even then, they’ve probably got other issues driving their decline.

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