On the Wildside: Early butterflies making an appearance in Sheffield

The peacock butterfly pictured clearly over-wintered in hibernation and looks rather careworn rather than the sometimes pristine condition of newly-emerged specimens.
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I guess this individual was already quite old (in butterfly terms) before hiding away for the cold months. Its wing markings are faded and wing edges slightly tattered. Nevertheless, it made it through the bad weather and may get chance to breed this year before an inevitable demise. The peacock is one of our earliest butterflies to reappear, but there are several others out and about very soon, including the peacock’s cousin, small tortoiseshell. I have also seen speckled wood, one of the ‘brown butterflies’ in the garden and this is a species that has dramatically expanded its range over the last fifty years or so.

Another rather spectacular butterfly and also an early species, is the sulphur-yellow brimstone. This is a brilliant yellow member of the ‘white butterflies’ and is again a species on the increase, but limited by the range of its foodplant, buckthorn. In our region this tends to be found in woods on limestone geology. Planting buckthorn in urban and urban-fringe greenspaces may help this stunning insect to spread. Christine Handley has already reported one from south Sheffield just last week, and so it is something to watch out for. It has two broods with the first being early emergent adults that over-wintered, and then a second in summer though until September. I spotted brimstones in my wildlife garden twice last spring, so I am hopeful of more records this year. The only other ‘white’ that sports some yellow, and that can look quite bright in sunlight, is the large white. This has very yellow rear underwings and as a patch on the forewings, again on the underside. Again, this is a large species, but the wing shape is very different from brimstone which has distinctive points in the wing-tips. You can help the conservation of this species by planting buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus) in your garden but don’t eat the berries. Its name ‘purging buckthorn’ relates to their laxative properties!

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Professor Ian D. Rotherham, researcher, writer & broadcaster on wildlife & environmental issues, is contactable on [email protected]; follow Ian’s blog (https://ianswalkonthewildside.wordpress.com/) and Twitter @IanThewildside

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