The Butterflies of Sutton Park National Nature Reserve

by Harvey Skelcher

The 1965 Guide Book for Sutton Park listed twenty two species of butterfly which it stated could be found within the park. Although this number is roughly correct with regard to the number of species one might expect to encounter in the park today, the 1965 list had some glaring omissions. Butterflies like the Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris) and the Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus), although not included, were fairly common during this period and both can still be found in Sutton Park today. To complicate things further the 1965 list also included a number of species which have since become extinct in Sutton Park.

In recent years butterfly populations in Sutton Park have been reported more accurately by Rangers and other local enthusiasts who record their sightings at the Visitor Centre. So just what are you likely to find when you walk across the summer heathlands, through the wetland flower meadows, and down the dappled woodland glades in Sutton Park.

The following is a list containing all the butterfly species found in Sutton Park today, this also includes all those species listed in the 1965 guide as well as all the migrant species which may turn up in the park from time to time. The list also includes reference to current status and flight periods.

Nymphalidae

Small TortoishellSmall Tortoishell (Aglais urticae).

This colourful butterfly is common throughout the British Isles and often turns up in local gardens; however a decline in numbers has been noticed in Sutton Park during the last couple of years, a decline which has also been noticed in other parts of the country. Hopefully this is due to natural fluctuations in numbers which can occur from time to time, nevertheless, the progress of this species should be watched carefully in forthcoming seasons.
Usually double brooded and flying on warm sunny days throughout the year, this butterfly hibernates as an adult insect during the winter. Caterpillar food plant: Stinging Nettle.

PeacockPeacock (Inachis io).

Like the Small Tortoishell this butterfly is a regular garden visitor which can be found flying throughout England, Wales, Ireland and much of Southern and Western Scotland. Large vividly coloured upper wings with patterned ‘Peacock Eye Patches’ make this insect unmistakable and it can be seen, flying during most months on warm sunny days almost anywhere in Sutton Park. The Peacock hibernates as an adult insect during the winter. Caterpillar food plant: Stinging Nettle.

Comma - note the under wing markComma (Polygonia c-album).Comma - wings open

At the beginning of the 20th Century this butterfly was confined to Herefordshire and the Welsh Borders, however it’s range expanded rapidly during the latter half of the last century and now extends to most of southern England and Wales. Another frequent visitor to gardens the Comma is also now a regularly encountered Sutton Park resident. Found on most open ground, often along hedgerows or woodland edges. This butterfly has a distinct ragged outline which offers good camouflage when hiding or hibernating amongst dead leaves. Flying on warm sunny day’s throughout the year this species hibernates as an adult during winter. Caterpillar food plants: i) Stinging Nettle, ii) Hop. Note: A change in preference of food plant, from Hop to Nettle, may have contributed towards the apparent success of this species.

Painted LadyPainted LaPainted Lady dy (Vannessa cardui).

Some years this butterfly may be seen throughout the summer almost everywhere in Sutton Park, and then several years may lapse with hardly a single specimen being recorded. This has much to do with the butterflies migratory habits. Immigrants from North Africa colonise the British Isles annually, breeding throughout the summer months. A few specimens usually find their way to Sutton Park during most years, but unfortunately they are unable to survive the British winter. Caterpillar food plants: various Thistle species.

 Red Admiral (Vannessa Atlanta).

The Red Admiral is another migratory species which can fluctuate greatly in numbers from year to year. Generally more common than the Painted Lady, the Red Admiral arrives in Sutton Park from Central and Southern Europe regularly each year, breeding throughout the summer, and hibernating in small numbers as an adult insect throughout the winter. Caterpillar food plant: Stinging Nettle.

marsh_fritillary_euphydryas_auriniaMarsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia).

Present Status: Extinct in Sutton Park.

Recorded as a resident species in the 1965 Guide to Sutton Park, this butterfly has been extinct there for many years now, probably even prior to 1965. During the last fifty years the species has disappeared from many former haunts within the British Isles, even on well managed sites, and for reasons which are often hard to explain. Isolated colonies like those that used to exist in Sutton Park would always have been the most likely to fail through inbreeding and disease, or through attacks by parasitic wasps. However with the implementation of better management plans and an increase in devils bit scabious, (the caterpillar food plant), a reintroduction programme for the Marsh Fritillary in Sutton Park must now be seen as a serious possibility. Refer to Sutton Park Management Plan 2002 / 2007 by Dr. Stefan Bodnar.

 Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary(Boloria selene).

Present Status: Extinct in Sutton Park. Recorded as a resident species in the 1965 guide, this butterfly probably became extinct in Sutton Park as a direct lack of suitable habitat management policies during the mid 20th century. Birch, willow and other invasive species were allowed to colonise formally open areas of wetland and heath, and coppicing practises in the area were neglected. This led to diminishing supplies of marsh violet, the preferred caterpillar food plant for the S.P.B.F. in Sutton Park. Now, with better management practises, the marsh violets have returned in good numbers and it is hoped that soon a re-introduction programme for this species may be put into operation. Refer to Sutton Park Management Plan 2002 / 2007 by Dr. Stefan Bodnar.

High Brown Fritillary High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe).

Present Status: Extinct in Sutton Park. Listed as a resident species in the 1965 guide book to Sutton Park, this impressive insect has now disappeared from the majority of it’s former U.K. haunts. Nationally endangered, the species is now confined to a few scattered locations in the West of Britain; from Devon and Cornwall in the South, a few parts of Wales and the Bordering Counties, reaching to North Lancashire and Cumbria in the North. Upon first impressions Sutton Park, under a specifically planned rotational coppicing programme, would appear to be the ideal environment for the H.B.F. Even the invasive bracken which can be a threat to so many species has certain benefits which can improve the well being for this butterfly. However, dog violet, the preferred caterpillar food plant, is surprisingly uncommon in Sutton Park and it is hard to imagine that even the Park’s improving quantities of marsh violets would be sufficient enough to support a re-introduction programme for this species. Unfortunately I have no information with regard to the former status of this butterfly in Sutton Park.

camberwell-beauty_nymphalis_antiopa-96x96Camberwell Beauty (Nymphalis antiopa).

An extremely rare migrant from the continent. One was seen on several occasions near to Blackroot Mill during the summer of 1996. Although a rare and irregular visitor to Britain, this species finds it’s way here during most years in very small numbers, with occasional years producing somewhat more of these large beautiful insects. Possibilities for future encounters with this butterfly in Sutton Park can therefore never totally be ruled out. (This butterfly was not included on the 1965 list).

Lycaenidae:

Small CopperSmall CopperSmall Copper (Lycaena phlaeas).

A common species in Sutton Park during most years, this butterfly can be found throughout the spring, summer and early autumn. Rough grassland and heath appear to be favourite haunts, especially in the damper spots. A small but nevertheless striking insect, the Small Copper usually has three, (occasionally four) broods in a season. An occasional garden visitor and familiar to many people. Caterpillar food plant: Common Sorrel and Sheep’s Sorrel.

Holly Blue Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus).

Normally a very abundant species in Sutton Park although some years populations may plummet due to natural fluctuations often caused by plagues of parasitic wasps which can heavily diminish large numbers of this species, several years may then be needed for them to build back up their numbers again. They are associated mainly with woodland rides and edges, especially where there is an abundance of holly, making Sutton Park an ideal habitat for this species. The caterpillars of the first brood are reared on holly flowers whilst those of the second brood are generally raised on the flowers of ivy although other species are also often used including gorse, dogwood, spindle, snowberry, buddleia and various heathers; so the butterflies in Sutton Park should always have plenty of options to choose from. The Holly Blue is by no means confined within the area to Sutton Park, and can often be seen in gardens and parks throughout Sutton Coldfield, and other parts of Warwickshire and the West Midlands. The holly blue butterfly resting on a holly leaf emblem was adapted by Helen Woodward Clarke as a logo for the FOSPA Conservation Team in April 1997, and was endorsed as a logo for FOSPA during the following year.

Common BlueCommon Blue Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus).

Although This butterfly is generally regarded to be the commonest and most widespread of the blue species throughout the U.K. it is however quite a rarity for Sutton Park, with only occasional sightings being recorded, and then often several years apart. It is possible that sometimes it may be overlooked with odd specimens been occasionally mistaken for the far more common Holly Blue, but at best the species could not be considered common, (The last one I saw there myself was close to Park House during the Summer of 1998). Usually double brooded and flying on warm days from May through to October, the caterpillar feeds upon a wide range of leguminous plants including Birds foot trefoil, Lesser trefoil, Greater birds foot trefoil and Black medic.

Green HairstreakGreen Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi).

To many lepidopterist’s this small insect is the most interesting of all Sutton Parks resident butterfly species, it is probably also the only one to be found nowhere else locally in the area, and great care is taken to manage the habitat with this species specifically in mind: Refer to Sutton Park Management Plan 2002 / 2007, by Dr. Stefan Bodnar. Whilst Green Hairstreaks appear to be fairing well in Sutton Park, turning up often and practically anywhere, on open ground on warm sunny days between late March and early June; throughout Warwickshire and the West Midlands as a whole, the species has suffered an alarming and marked decline. The many caterpillar food plants include: gorse, bramble, bilberry, cranberry, buckthorn and broom.

Purple Hairstreak Purple Hairstreak (Quercusia quercus).

The Purple Hairstreak is often overlooked due to it’s annoying habit of flying for the most part, high up in the oak tree canopies. On the wing throughout late July and August, this butterfly is probably far more common than records suggest, especially in Sutton Park where Oak is the predominant woodland species. One of my favourite ways to see them is to sit beneath the oak trees on a sunny day where they line the banks of Plants Brook between Park House Nature Reserve and Blackroot pool, at a point where the brook runs close to the back of Keepers car park. Here, with patience, you may occasionally see them flutter down to rest for a short period on the footpath, before flitting off again back into the tree tops. (This butterfly would certainly have been a long standing Sutton Park resident, however it is not included in the 1965 list). Caterpillar food plant: Oak.

white-letter_hairstreak_satyrium_w-album-96x96White Letter Hairstreak (Strymonidia w-album).

Records for this species are few and far between with only a couple of single specimen sightings occurring over a period of several years. The caterpillar food plant is elm, which has always been an uncommon species in Sutton Park. Small colonies of this butterfly probably still survive here but I am still waiting to find one for myself. Widespread but very local across most of England and Wales, this species has declined somewhat due to Dutch elm disease attacking and killing many caterpillar food sources. (The butterfly was not included in the 1965 guide book list).

Satyridae:

 Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria).

The Speckled Wood Has increased dramatically in Sutton Park during the past thirty years and is now a common site in woodlands, scrub land and hedgerows throughout the park. This trend has been reflected nationally with the species expanding it’s range greatly since the 1920’s. With an ability to survive in denser areas of woodland than any other British species, this butterfly may actually have benefited somewhat due to the neglect of former coppicing practises. On the wing from March to October, this species has up to three broods a year and has the ability to survive throughout the winter in either the caterpillar or chrysalis stage. Caterpillar food plants: a wide variety of various grasses.

 Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina).

A very common butterfly found on grasslands, heathlands, and along woodland glades throughout Sutton Park, and indeed most of lowland Britain. This large but rather dull looking insect flies from June until September. In a good season the Meadow Brown could well be Sutton Parks most abundantly occurring butterfly species. Caterpillar food plant: a wide range of grasses, especially those with fine or medium leaves.

 Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus).

Common throughout southern England and Wales but rarer or absent in the north. This butterfly has increased dramatically in Sutton Park during the past twenty years, and on certain warm sunny days in August the species can easily rival the Meadow Brown in numbers in some areas of the park. I do not recall seeing this species in Sutton Park before the 1980’s, and it is interesting to note that it is not listed in the 1965 Sutton Park guide book. Caterpillar food plants: a wide range of fine and medium bladed grass species.

Small Heath Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus).

Formally a very common butterfly in Sutton Park, this species has diminished somewhat in numbers over the past ten years. A butterfly of heathlands and dry grassland, the Small Heath has also recently caused some concern over diminishing numbers nationally. However, the species still appears annually in fair numbers in Sutton Park, flying over open ground between mid May and early October. With up to three broods in a season, this small butterfly is quite lively and is fairly easy to spot, and it is hard to explain why it was not included in the 1965 Sutton Park guide book. Caterpillar food plants: Various grasses.

wall_brown_lasiommata_megera_male-96x96Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera).wall_brown_lasiommata_megera_female-96x96

Present Status: possibly extinct in Sutton Park. Listed as a resident species in the 1965 guide book, I can well remember ‘the wall’ being very common in Sutton Park and the surrounding area, as recently as the mid 1980’s. The species is causing some concern nationally as it has disappeared mysteriously from many of it’s former haunts during the past twenty years and there have only been a handful of unconfirmed reports of this butterfly occurring in Sutton Park during the last ten years. One can only hope that soon it may be encouraged to return again to the favoured open grassland habitats of Sutton park. Refer to Sutton Park Management Plan 2002 / 2007, by Dr. Stefan Bodnar. Caterpillar food plants: various grasses.

 Marbled White (Melanargia galathea).

One single record only. Recorded by Dr. Stefan Bodnar in the Summer of 2000 in the North of Sutton Park. Local and uncommon in Warwickshire and the West Midlands, this butterfly has recently shown some signs of extending it’s range and could be one to look out for in the future, although it is generally found on less acidic soils than those occurring in Sutton Park. Caterpillar food plant: Red Fescue and various other grasses.

Pieridae:

Large White Large White (Pieris brassicae).

A common species in the U.K. with numbers boosted annually by a large influx of immigrant insects arriving in Britain from Northern Europe. This butterfly is considered to be a pest by farmers due to the caterpillars liking for Brassica species including cabbages and Brussels sprouts, although they also feed on wild mignonette and nasturtium leaves. Generally less common than the small white, or the green veined white in Sutton Park, this species appears to have diminished somewhat in recent years and is more often encountered feeding on the flowers in local gardens than it is in Sutton Park. With up to three broods in a season, this butterfly can be seen on the wing from late February until October.

  Small White (Pieris rapae).

Another very common, nomadic species, boosted annually in numbers by an influx of continental immigrants. Similar, but smaller in size than the large white. On the wing between March and October, this butterfly can be found across all parts of Sutton Park except in dense woodland. The Small White has up to three broods in a season. Caterpillar food plants: All cabbage species and nasturtium.

Green Vined White Green Veined White (Pieris napi).

Abundant everywhere, especially in damper places; during some years this species can probably be the most commonly encountered butterfly in Sutton Park. Double brooded and flying between March and September, the G.V.W. can easily be mistaken for the female orange tip at a distance during the springtime when flight periods coincide. Caterpillar food plants include: water cress, cuckoo flower, garlic mustard and hedge mustard.

 Orange Tip (Anthocharis cardamines.

A common species throughout lowland England and Wales, the Orange Tip is on the wing between April and late June. Only the male has the striking orange tips to his wings the female being often mistaken at a distance for the less attractive green veined white. A nomadic resident that finds it’s way in good numbers across most parts of Sutton Park and the surrounding area. Caterpillar food plants: cuckoo flower, garlic mustard.

BrimstoneBrimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni).

The Brimstone appears in fair numbers during most years in Sutton Park. They first appear in early spring after hibernating throughout the winter as adult insects. Common in southern parts of England and Wales, as well as in parts of Cumbria and North Lancashire in the north; this butterfly can be found flying through woodland glades and along hedgerows and woodland edges, wherever the caterpillar food plants of buckthorn or alder buckthorn occur. Flying on warm sunny days from February to October, adult insects can be found during most months of the year. Only the males have the colourful bright yellow wings, the females being a duller greenish white in colour.

  Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus).

A resident of Africa and Southern Europe this species makes an irregular migration annually to the UK. Although varying greatly in numbers from year to year the butterfly is seldom common, unlike the Red Admiral or the Painted Lady, (Britain’s two other major immigrant species). Recorded annually from southern coastal regions, the Clouded Yellow diminishes in numbers as it spreads north as far as Mid Scotland and only occasionally is the species abundant. Clouded Yellows cannot survive the British winter and will die or migrate south in the autumn. It is only on rare occasions that the butterflies reach Sutton Park, although the Clouded Yellow was included in the 1965 Sutton Park guide book as a species likely to be encountered. Caterpillar food plants: Clover species, Lucerne, birds foot trefoil and various vetches.

Hesperiidae:

 Large Skipper (Ochlodes venata)

A common butterfly in many parts of Britain, with a range extending as far north as south west Scotland. This butterfly is a common species in Sutton Park, on the wing from mid June until mid August. Large Skippers can often be found feeding and basking alongside the slightly smaller Small Skipper which they resemble in many ways, however the Large Skipper has a more mottled gold colouring and usually emerges slightly earlier in the year. The Large Sipper is also the more likely of the two to turn up in local gardens. Caterpillar food plants: various coarse grasses, mainly cock’s foot or purple moor grass.

 Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)

The Small Skipper is a small, golden coloured butterfly, with a darting, erratic flight. Common on most rough unimproved grassland in southern Britain. The species is also common in many parts of Sutton Park, and often many adults can be seen feeding on the nectar of bramble or thistle flowers during warm sunny days between late June and early August. Surprisingly this butterfly is not included in the listings of the 1965 guide book for Sutton Park, yet I can well remember seeing many Small Skippers in Sutton Park as a young boy growing up in the 1960’s, and it seems likely that they were overlooked in favour of their similar and slightly more conspicuous cousin, the Large Skipper, which is also a common butterfly in Sutton Park. Caterpillar food plant: Yorkshire fog grass.

Summary

I know of no other butterfly species to be associated with Sutton Park although it is certain that other species must have occurred there in the past, (the ‘large tortoishell’ for example, was as common in the 19th Century as the ‘comma’ is today), and it is just as likely that new species will be recorded in Sutton Park during the future. It is unlikely nowadays that any undiscovered residents have been overlooked, although I do sometimes take a close look at my Small Skippers to make certain that they are not the closely related Essex Skipper, (a similar species that has recently extended it’s range considerably).

It is interesting to note that the 1965 guide book to Sutton Park lists three butterfly species as being confined within the region to Sutton Park only.

These being the now extinct Marsh and Small Pearl Bordered Fritillaries as well as the still reasonably numerous Green Hairstreak. If we are to take this information to be accurate then it would be reasonable to assume that the now nationally scarce High Brown Fritillary could have been seen flying across other parts of Sutton Coldfield less than half a century ago.

Butterfly numbers fluctuate generally from year to year and whilst some species appear to be in the process of extending their national range, others are clinging to survival in a few isolated British colonies.

Only by protecting sites and carefully managing the habitat can the survival for many species be assured and this applies as equally to Sutton Park as it does to other parts of the country. A new five year management plan (2002 / 2007) has recently been drawn up for Sutton Park by Dr. Stefan Bodnar, and in his plan the specific requirements for Sutton Park’s butterfly species have been fully considered.

The FOSPA Conservation Team will continue to work in conjunction with the Sutton Park Ranger Service (and in consultation with English Nature through the Sutton Park Advisory Committee) on a number of projects concerning the improvement of the associated habitat for many of Sutton Park’s butterfly species.

Harvey Skelcher
2003