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Parkland and butterflies

David McCann   Thu 15 Oct 2020

By,Ross McIIwrath, Reserve Warden, at WWT Castle Espie.

Parklands are fantastic spaces for wildlife; particularly invertebrates. They often have a mosaic of different habitats which make them brilliant for local biodiversity; wildflower meadows, mixed woodland with mature trees and small rivers or ponds. These habitats are brilliant for insects, which in turn is great for our common bird species like Robins and Blue Tits. Parklands are often planted up with beautiful flowers which can be great for pollinating insects. Butterflies are some of our most conspicuous pollinators and many are commonly seen in our parklands.

Mature woodland is a scarce habitat in Northern Ireland. Many of the trees in our parks can be hundreds of years old, which makes them a great resource for wildlife. As these woods are used by people there tends to be lots of sunny glades and open woodland edges. This is great habitat for one our commonest summer Butterflies, the Speckled Wood.

Speckled Woods are a medium sized butterfly with a brown base colour, but “speckled” with creamy blotches and black eyespots, on both their upper and underwings. They are commonly seen on woodland edges, glades and over hedgerows from May to September. Almost counter-intuitively, the caterpillars feed on grasses on the woodland floor, but the adult butterflies need sunny areas to search for food and mates. Male Speckled Woods will be very territorial. They can be seen patrolling their own patch, chasing off other males and attempting to woo females. Sunny patches are a prized commodity and are hotspots for feeding aphids. This is vital for Speckled Woods as although they can nectar on flowers, they mainly feed on honeydew produced by the aphids! Very easy to spot along woodland paths across Northern Ireland, especially in parkland.

Another woodland specialist is the less common Holly Blue Butterfly. As the name suggests, Holly Blue caterpillars feed on Holly. Holly is a slow growing species and a lot of mature Holly Trees can be seen in our parks. And as the name also suggests, they are pale powder blue colour, with small black markings.

Holly Blue flies earlier in the year than most butterflies, April – June. They tend to fly above head height. They are easy to identify as they are Northern Ireland’s only blue butterfly that behaves in this way. Historically confined to the South of County Down but are beginning to spread North and Westwards in recent years. So now an important butterfly to look out for and record in our Parks.

Other conspicuous butterflies to be seen in the Spring and late Summer our; Peacock, Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell. All these species are common in Northern Ireland. They are strong fliers and can travel long distances to find flowers to nectar on and search for mates. All three species need nettles for their caterpillars, so those nettle patches often seen in the corners of parks are paramount to keep these beauties in our parks; Peacocks are large, red with bright blue spots (like a Peacock). Red Admiral are large, black, with red/pink stripes on their shoulder (like an admiral). Small Tortoiseshell are slightly smaller than the other two, have a base of orange, but have a medley of other colours when observed up close; black, yellow and blue. All these species can be seen in open, sunny areas in our parklands, where nectar rich flowers are abundant.

Photo credit; Jonathon Clark