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Butterflies & Moths.

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Butterflies are very colourful inhabitants of our countryside; the less often seen largely nocturnal moths can be also as attractive. There is no inherent difference between the two: most butterflies fly during the day and most, but not all moths at night. In the UK we have about 55 resident species of butterfly; 29 of these may be seen at Holtspur Bank. These are increased during the summer by some others that fly in from warmer parts of Europe. In contrast there are some 2500 moths in this country.


The earliest butterflies to be seen each year are those which hibernate as adults, and first is usually the bright yellow brimstone, which can be seen on any warm day from March onwards. These are the males of the species, which fly continuously looking for the pale greenish females which appear slightly later. The brimstone is believed to be the original butterfly – “the butter coloured fly”. They mate during April/ May, lay eggs on buckthorn bushes and a new generation emerges in late July to start the cycle again. Brimstones are followed by other overwintering adults: the peacock, unmistakable when settled with a striking “peacock eye” on each wing, in flight they look almost black due to the underside being a very dark brown; the small tortoiseshell, once common but now quite rare; and the comma, a bright orange brown butterfly, with unmistakeable very ragged wing edges follow. The name comes from a small white comma mark on the rear underwing, only visible when the insect is at rest with wings closed.

From late April onwards, the first of the new season butterflies emerge. The orange tip, large and small cabbage white, green-veined white, holly blue, and green hairstreak. Only the male orange tip lives up to the description, the female being almost white. Only the large and small whites have larvae that eat cabbage, it can be a challenge to identify these “pests” from the “innocent” green-veined white and the females of the brimstone, and orange tip. The small green hairstreak is our only true green butterfly; its flight is rapid and jerky, making it hard to follow, whilst when settled on leaves of the buckthorn, its colour makes it almost impossible to spot. There are at least four species of blue butterfly to be seen on the reserve, the holly blue is the earliest and the only one which will fly up amongst the trees and shrubs, rather than keeping low down over the grass and flowers.

 Towards the end of June, the true summer butterflies appear, having passed through their larval stages during the spring. Five or six of these are known as the “summer browns” an appropriate description, although they are far from being dull brown. One species is more white than brown, this being the marbled white with a chequered pattern of black squares on a white wing. This is a classic butterfly of the Chiltern grassland, and unmistakable: it features in the Holtspur Bank LNR logo. Other “browns” include: the meadow brown; hedge brown, otherwise called the gatekeeper from its habit of flying along hedges and banks rather than the open grass favoured by the meadow brown. The ringlet is a very dark brown and has conspicuous golden rings on the underside. It is more a species of shady damper spots. By the end of July, the ringlet and marbled white are gone, but meadow browns are around until September.

Another member of the “browns”, the speckled wood, dark brown with many yellow spots, is an early species to emerge and remains around until early autumn; it favours the shadier parts of the reserve hedges.

By August all of the reserve’s butterflies will have been on the wing; common blue, brown argus and small copper are all small, but distinctive members of the “blue” family, while large, small and Essex skippers, small orange brown species with a distinctive darting flight, will have joined them. Depending on the weather across Europe, visitors such as clouded yellow and painted lady, this from North Africa (Morocco), may have come to join them.


Although the majority of moths are night flying, with so many species there are quite a number that are day flying. The black and red striped cinnabar can be seen in May/June, while the smaller black and red six-spot burnet moths, with their bee-like flight, can be seen in June/July. These are examples of moths with warning colours; conspicuous because they are poisonous if eaten by other animals. Another very common moth, the silver Y, can be seen throughout the summer – greyish with a conspicuous white “Y” mark on the fore wings and a rapid darting flight. Even when feeding from flowers the wings continue to beat. In good summers, the humming bird hawk moth may be seen; medium size grey and orange, its flight is even more rapid that the silver Y and it hovers above its nectar flowers, feeding through its long tongue as it feeds.

 As with the butterflies, the best way to learn to recognise them is by joining one of the organised walks and activities on the reserve.