The lonely ringlet, and other garden tales

Once upon a time, in a wild garden in the heart of Cornwall, there lived a ringlet.

The hero of our tale loved to bask in the sunshine, spreading his velvety brown wings to enjoy the warmth. He loved taking his gently dipping flights through the waving grasses of his home. If he caught sight of his reflection in a dew drop, then he loved to admire the beautiful yellow-rimmed eye-spots on the underside of his wings.

Ringlet
A very sad and lonely ringlet…

This, however, was a very sad ringlet. It was all very well admiring his own wings, but he longed for a lady ringlet who could share his adventures in the long grass. He would much rather admire her beauty than his own, and he yearned to be loved in return.

Every day, the fairy godmother of the garden would visit the ringlet’s grassy home. She, too, was heartbroken to see his lonely life. The sunny weather turned to rain, as if the lonely ringlet’s mood had even made the skies sad. But the rain meant it was even less likely that another ringlet would arrive. The future looked bleak for our despairing hero.

Then, one morning, there was a glimmer in the sky, the clouds were swept aside, and the sun came home after a long time away. The fairy godmother looked out of a high window in her castle at the edge of the garden, smiling at the feeling of sunlight on her face.

Then something caught her eye. Over the long grass of the ringlet’s home, two brown butterflies were bobbing and pirouetting round each other. Could it be? – yes! Two ringlets, spinning happily through the grass, overjoyed at finding each other, at long last. Each ringlet admired the chocolate of the other’s wings, and especially the beautiful yellow-rimmed eyespots.

They danced together all day until the sun went down.

***********************

Foxgloves and Biting Stonecrop
Foxgloves and Biting Stonecrop adorning the wall behind the ringlet home

And so, my story of the lonely ringlet has a happy ending. Fanciful it may be, but it is based on truth. I keep a patch of long grass set aside in my garden. It is a good spot for frogs and invertebrates, and who knows what else, to tuck themselves away. Plenty of wildflowers grow on the wall behind – foxgloves, biting stonecrop, pennywort, vetches, spearwort plantain and brambles. It’s a small patch, but it’s a haven for wildlife.

In previous years, this spot has always been alive with ringlets, lovely  velvety butterflies that need long grass: to shelter in, to lay their eggs in, and as the food plant of their caterpillars. This year – maybe because of the unseasonal weather – there have hardly been any. I was waiting for the first to emerge at the usual time of year for ringlets (mid-June onwards), but eventually only a single ringlet appeared (I’ve made it a ‘he’ in my story, but it could equally have been a ‘she’). Call me soft, but I felt very sorry for it.

It was a whole week later before a second ringlet emerged. This may also have been a ‘he’ or a ‘she’, but by the way the two danced round each other in a courtship flight, followed by one of the pair bobbing through the grass to lay eggs, they must have been of the opposite sex. So, even if there are only a few ringlets in the ringlet home this year, and maybe only these two, I’m hoping for a successful generation in 2017.

Blackbird fledgling_2.jpg
Fluffy blackbird fledgling

In other wildlife garden news, I have enjoyed watching a hardworking blackbird pair forage in the garden to feed their offspring. Then this young blackbird appeared on the roof of my woodshed, looking all fluffy and a bit nervous. It seems to be doing well: I’ve seen it a few times, looking more grown-up and brave with each successive sighting.

Other butterflies spotted include the usual crop of whites, speckled woods, red admirals and painted ladies. The tearaway flock of goldfinches have been speeding about, chasing each other from shrub to shrub to wall to fence to tree to shed…and so on, endlessly. Do they ever stop to rest?

And all the seedlings I tended so lovingly in the greenhouse this year are doing amazingly in the outside world of the garden. On sunny days (remember them?) they are alive with bees and hoverflies. I’ve got an entire flowerbed filled with bishop’s flower, emilia, verbena, marigolds, hedge woundwort, sunflowers (just opening), sweet peas, black-eyed susan and tobacco plant (great for moths). All I need is a warm day so I can relax in the garden with a good book, surrounded by my plants.

Hopefully, I’ll be joined by at least two ringlets, dancing together in the sunshine.

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

Bunny’s Hill

Violets

Earlier this month, I went to visit Bunny’s Hill, near Cardinham and Bodmin, with Cornwall Butterfly Conservation (CBC). A beautiful spot in so many ways, our main reason for being there was to see if we could find Pearl-bordered Fritillaries (Boloria euphrosyne).

English: The Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Bolori...
The Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) (Photo: Wikipedia)

Sadly, we didn’t: the unseasonal cold weather and blustery conditions had presumably delayed the butterflies’ emergence.

It made me think back to 2012 when we made the same trip on the same weekend (and my first ever field trip with my new friends in CBC).  Here’s what I wrote in my notebook from that earlier trip:

We were lucky to see a few Pearl-bordered Fritillaries on this, the first warm day of May (and the first warm day since March!). The males fly a little before females and, newly-emerged, they were pristine and beautiful. We found them feeding on nectar from bugle flowers – maybe they like blue, as Common Violet is the only foodplant of their caterpillars. They are also choosy, as Heath Violets won’t do at all..! The silver spots on the underside of their wings were gorgeous: photographs cannot do justice to the iridescence.

Bunny's Hill, Cardinham (photo: Amanda Scott)
Bunny’s Hill, Cardinham (Photo: Amanda Scott)

I obviously enjoyed the day! I also very much enjoyed Bunny’s Hill this year, even without the butterflies, but it just goes to show what a difference a year can make for wildlife. Natural fluctuations in the weather can obviously affect the timing of emergence and cause short-term population setbacks, and wildlife has survived that for thousands of years. However, these natural variations are increasingly becoming the ‘last straw’ when they overlie habitat loss, pressure from human populations and agricultural intensification (link here to Butterfly Conservation’s recent report on the state of our British butterflies, and here to the equivalent report for moths).

Pearl-bordered Fritillary at Bunny's Hill (Photo: Lee Slaughter)
Pearl-bordered Fritillary at Bunny’s Hill (Photo: Lee Slaughter)

The Pearl-bordered Fritillary is a rare species nationally, and found on only a handful of sites in Cornwall. It is a butterfly traditionally associated with coppiced woodland, of which there is now precious little left, and sites like Bunny’s Hill, with its open bracken-y habitats, perhaps provide an alternative. The good news is that much habitat management work has and continues to be undertaken at Bunny’s Hill by CBC in conjunction with the owners, and this has helped maintain the Pearl-bordered Fritillary population since it was discovered there for the first time by CBC co-founder, Lee Slaughter, on 14th May 1998 – an exciting day he will never forget!

English: Brimstone butterfly The Brimstone Gon...
Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni) perfectly matches a leaf when at rest or feeding. The upper surface of the wings is yellow and it is thought that this was the original butter-coloured fly, or butterfly (Photo and caption text: Wikipedia).

Bunny’s Hill is a delightful spot to visit. The Gorse was in full and glorious, coconut-scented bloom, and the views across the landscape were inspiring, even on a windy and chilly day. Looking at my species lists for the two visits, in 2012 and 2013, there is an amazing amount of wildlife to see if you pay attention. Last year, as well as the Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, we also spotted Brimstones, a Green-veined White and a Green Longhorn moth. This year we saw my favourite caterpillar – the Drinker Moth.

Cornish Bladderseed leaves (Photo: Amanda Scott)
Cornish Bladderseed leaves (Photo: Amanda Scott)

What else can you see? Well, you might find the wonderful Bloody-nosed Beetle, which exudes a foul-tasting red liquid from its mouth when threatened. We found nuts nibbled by Dormice and Wood Mice, and this year we even fleetingly saw a Badger, unusually out in the daytime. Plants include  Tormentil, Wood Anemone, Wood Sage, Lousewort and Betony (the last of which, together with the Violets and Bluebells also found there, is an ancient woodland indicator species). We also saw Adder’s-tongue Fern, an indicator of ancient meadow. And, of course, Cornish Bladderseed. This rare umbellifer (a plant of the Carrot family) is only found on a small number of locations in Cornwall and Buckinghamshire, but there is plenty at Bunny’s Hill. It flowers later in the year, in July and August, but its leaves have a delicate beauty underfoot.

Some of Bunny’s Hill is accessible to the public via footpaths. If you would like to visit and experience it for yourself, the grid reference is SX117675: at the fork in the road, turn left, with further parking 50 yards up the track.

Wood anemone