Wildlife Column: Meadows, flowers and butterflies

Encouraging and creating meadows and similar grasslands bring many benefits and under-pressure insects like butterflies are amongst those to gain opportunities.

Thursday, 22nd July 2021, 6:00 am

Indeed, many of our more common butterflies and moths are grass feeders – in other words they lay their eggs on grasses such as cock’s-foot and their larvae (the caterpillars) feed there. These butterflies include the sometimes abundant ‘meadow brown’ and related species. Other butterflies feed on grasses or on the commoner flowers of meadows and associated habitats such as the dock family and especially the peas and clovers such as bird’s-foot trefoil the favoured food-plant of the common blue butterfly. Of course a managed ‘meadow’ is also a risky place for insects as in the mid to late summer the sward will be cut. Hopefully, there are sufficient untidy margins, hedgerows and unkempt corners for the insects to survive there. On the ‘urban commons’ or what when I was a child we used to call ‘waste ground’ the mid-summer cull doesn’t occur and consequently these become great places to seek out butterflies, moths, and other insects. Even here though there is a longer-term risk which is the loss of habitat or at least changes to it. Uncut, the commons site follows what we term an ‘ecological succession’ as vegetation grows and establishes towards firstly scrub and then young woodland. In this case, if we want to keep the meadow butterflies then intervention is necessary every few years to turn the process back to open conditions, or else the creation of new grassland patches. From the latter, the whole successional process begins again.

These grassland butterflies behave differently from the familiar ‘vanesid’ species like peacock, red admiral, and small tortoiseshell which lay eggs on nettle patches and come to garden flowers like Buddleia. They need decent sized areas of rough ground for nettles and then access garden flowers and the like; their success each year being strongly affected by the weather. The browns and related butterflies of meadows and other grasslands are influenced by weather but for them the real challenge is the availability of suitable habitat.

Meadow brown butterfly taken by Ian Rotherham.