On A Wing And A Prayer

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Butterfly on flower
Summer is prime time for butterflies – but what can you do to make sure these winged wonders spend time in your garden? We ask the experts
Butterfly on flower
Butterfly on flower

It’s a big time for butterflies, and a big year for Butterfly Conservation, a wildlife conservation charity: they’re celebrating their 50th anniversary this year. ‘You could liken it to the RSPB for butterflies,’ explains Jonathan Wallace of Butterfly Conservation North East. ‘We’re engaged in a range of different activities to try and conserve the butterfly and moth species we have.’

Jonathan is one of around 400 volunteers in the region, and has been involved in the charity for a decade. He’s also the go-to person to ask about butterflies. ‘We’ve got just over 30 species of butterflies that can be found in the North East,’ he says. That’s around half of the 60 species that can be found across the country. ‘Like a lot of our wildlife, they’re struggling,’ he explains. ‘If we want to see these things remaining part of our countryside, we need to take action to reverse some of the decline.’

Just like our declining bee populations, butterflies have been hit by changes in farming, habitat loss and the increasing urbanisation of our country. There are things we can do to encourage more butterflies into our garden, however, to do so, it’s best to understand butterflies as a whole. ‘You can crudely divide our butterfly species up into what we’d call specialist species, which have very precise requirements for habitats, and the generalists, which are less fussy,’ says Jonathan. The generalists – butterflies like the small tortoiseshell, the peacock butterfly, the comma, red admiral and whites, all appear widely and can be attracted by clever planting.

Butterflies need plants for two purposes, explains Jonathan: ‘the caterpillars feed on leaves, and usually they’re quite specific as to which plant they feed on.’ 

Getting the right plants to attract caterpillars can be a difficult task. Christine Liddle, Owner of Birkheads Secret Gardens & Nursery (which has an extensive bee and butterfly garden), advises planting nettles ‘if you’ve got the space to allow things to get a bit wild and weedy.’ Cabbages and nasturtiums can also provide a vital food source.

‘But when they grow up into adults, they require nectar as an energy source,’ Jonathan adds. ‘It’s that second one – providing nectar for the adults – that is easiest to do.’

According to Jonathan, there are a wide range of plants that are attractive to butterflies. ‘The most well-known one is buddleia, which is easy to grow,’ he says. ‘But herbs like marjoram, verbena and lavender are also attractive to butterflies.’ Christine also recommends planting early-flowering plants like aubretia or low-grossing mossy flocks. ‘Indigenous plants like the common primrose are also excellent,’ she adds. ‘Our violas and grape hyacinths also have butterflies on them all the time.’ 

Christine’s butterflies tend to enjoy the flat, open flowers more than any others. ‘They go onto them and spread their wings so they can absorb the heat,’ she says. Birkheads also places recycled roof tiles on top of the soil under its plants to keep the area weed-free – but it has the added benefit of attracting butterflies too. ‘It reflects the heat and they seem to love that,’ she says.

Making sure that you have a diversity of plants on offer for butterflies to nip in and out of as they collect nectar is most important. Part of the reason that butterfly populations have struggled in recent years is the increasing proportion of green space that is devoted to a single plant or flower, rather than a multiplicity of options for butterflies to enjoy. Similarly, picking your plants on the basis of having nectar sources available for as long as possible is important. ‘Try and aim to have them flowering for as long a period as possible, starting early in the spring and carrying on through into the autumn,’ Jonathan advises. ‘A really good autumn plant is ivy,’ he continues. ‘It’s something that tends to be looked down on but ivy is great, because it flowers in the summer and early autumn when there’s not much else available.’

It’s not just planting that can help improve the habitat in home gardens for these winged wonders. You can also try and help by providing a place for hibernation (butterflies like to spend the winter in a small crevice or sheltered space, hibernating until the following spring) including specialist butterfly houses that can be bought and assembled in your garden. However, they aren’t wholly necessary. ‘It’s possible to provide a structure that gives them somewhere to crawl away and hide, but they’ll find places anyway,’ says Jonathan. ‘You often find them in garden huts or your house.’

But the best bet to ensure you have a broad range of butterflies flitting around your garden (if you have the space available) is to have a wildlife garden. ‘There are seed mixes you can plant out to attract butterflies you wouldn’t get in a more formal garden,’ says Jonathan. From there, simply sit back and enjoy the sight of multicoloured butterflies darting around your garden. And if you really want to get up close and personal, make sure you wear denim. There’s no definitive evidence, but plenty of anecdotal ones that butterflies are attracted to it. ‘We’ve had loads of visitors saying they’ve had butterflies land on them when they’ve been wearing it,’ says Christine.

Published in: June 2018

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