Summer Butterflies

Yesterday, after collecting my son from nursery, we went for a short walk down a single ride in Beckley Woods. It’s a lovely, narrow ride that’s only really useable in the summer as horseriders make it too muddy the rest of the year. It’s also the best place to see White Admiral and Silver-washed Fritillary in the whole wood.

As we got out of the car we saw Speckled Wood and Red Admiral in the little pools of sunlight near the entrance. Rides like this one, that have been allowed to close in, leaving some sunny areas, are just perfect for White Admiral. This butterfly has really thrived since the general cessation of coppicing, in stark contrast to many others which have seen a big decline for the same reason.

As we came to the first of the scalloped areas, we came across this White Admiral on the track.

_MG_8023Then, within a few moments, two Silver-washed Fritillaries appeared to our left, along with a Comma. The SWF flies quite quickly and doesn’t have the graceful gliding flight of the White Admiral which is instantly recogniseable in flight when you’ve seen it once.

As we walked further down the ride we saw more of both species feeding on Bramble flowers and patrolling up and down the ride – a total of six Silver-washed Fritillaries and four White Admirals – our first of the year.


A Surprising Discovery

I often go into Beckley Woods. I try to go once a week around lunchtime once the weather starts to warm up. A lot of habitat improvement has been carried out by the Forestry Commission and contractors as part of Butterfly Conservation’s Rother Woods Project, something I was very involved with from its inception.

The work is really paying off and the current ranger is very keen to help ensure the habitat is looked after, which is very welcome. The difference the work has made is very noticeable – rides which were previously crowded in have been opened up and the butterflies have responded well. Adder

On Wednesday, I decided to have a short walk and a sandwich and took my camera in the hope of seeing Brimstone or perhaps another Adder, as I had the previous week.

So, this is how I came to be quietly padding through the bracken on the south side of a ride, on the lookout for more of this beautiful snake.

Instead,  I noticed a butterfly basking on the bracken, wings flattened down against the warm surface making the best of the lunchtime sunshine. I immediately thought it looked big for a Tortoiseshell and then as I crept closer I reached for my camera as my suspicions peaked. I was sure it was a Large Tortoiseshell*(see below!) – a butterfly I had never seen in my life and extinct in the UK for a long time – but because of its status I thought I had better get a picture before it flies off, so I can confirm it.

Large TortoiseshellIn the end, I got quite a few shots, as it just lay there even as I adjusted settings on my camera. Indeed it only flew off when I touched it to make sure it was actually alive! Once home, I checked my Richard Lewington book (naturally) and confirmed I wasn’t going mad (at least not over this anyway) and then let a few people know.  This specimen is almost certainly an individual that migrated across the channel last summer and has hibernated in the wood. A number of Clouded Yellows were seen here last summer (also migrants) and this woodland is very close to the sea via the Tillingham Valley.

UPDATE: This discovery turns out to be even more surprising than first thought! The butterfly is in fact a Scarce Tortoiseshell, and the first record of one since 1953 and the first ever record of an overwintered specimen in the UK. The following is reproduced from the Sussex Butterflies website:

Scarce Tortoiseshell Update: While Michael Blencowe was preparing his talk for the BC Sussex AGM, he was scanning through some older pages on the Branch website. Having swotted up on the differences between Large and Scarce Tortoiseshell, he became deeply suspicious that the butterfly labelled as a Large Tortoiseshell, seen by Stuart Cooper in Beckley Woods (East Sussex), was in fact a Scarce Tortoiseshell! He rang me to ask for a second opinion and as I brought the old image up I nearly fell off my perch! The date …. 12th March 2014! This implies that the butterfly had overwintered in East Sussex and must have arrived in the UK during the summer of 2013. Although the species was undergoing a further phase in its rapid range expansion at this time, spreading northwards and westwards in southern Finland, and westwards through southern Sweden (Manil & Cuvelier, 2014; Fox et al, 2015), this new Sussex record remains well ahead of (observed) incursions into Norway, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands and Belgium, during July 2014. Unless the history of an imported woodpile on Shetland, which contained a sleepy Scarce Tortoiseshell (November 2013), can be accurately determined, this places the Beckley Woods specimen ahead of the post-1953 pack (the sole, previous British record being a 1953, Kent specimen). A great bit of detective work by Mr Blencowe. The cat has been put firmly amongst the pigeons! (Neil Hulme)

Patrick Barkham wrote this Scarce Tortoiseshell this year, but at the time we were all unaware that it had occurred a full year earlier, in the humble Beckley Woods.

Back in the 19th Century, the Large Tortoiseshell butterfly was plentiful in Sussex and Kent – even “of frequent occurrence in Burnt Ash Lane, Lewisham in 1856” and generally distributed across Surrey, Suffolk, Lincolnshire and more, according to my 1889 copy of E. Newman’s “Natural History of British Butterflies and Moths”.

The Scarce Tortoiseshell is a European species which has never been resident in the UK. Perhaps this is the early stages of a colonisation.

Big Butterfly Count

“At some point over the coming week (24th July – 1st August) please consider taking part in our BIG BUTTERFLY COUNT, a nationwide survey aimed at helping us assess the health of our environment.  It’s really simple and I’m certain you’ll find it enjoyable and rewarding. Visit the site at

– Steve Wheatley, Butterfly Conservation’s Rother Woods Project Officer

Beckley Woods Update

It’s been a while since my last post, but much has been going on in East Sussex and the Rother Woods Project has achieved a great deal with Steve Wheatley at the helm. Indeed, a walk in a local wood could well result in your bumping into him and possibly other butterfly enthusiasts!

Personally, I’ve been investing some time on recording methods using my recently acquired Blackberry Bold, whilst visiting a number of local woodlands.

With the aid of its inbuilt GPS and a newly customised version of GPSLogger (grateful thanks are due to Matthias at I can record the exact locations of butterfly sightings and export them to a CSV format. Even more useful, is the ability to upload to Google Maps.

Today, in Beckley Woods I recorded a few Silver-washed Fritillary, including several in a ride widened by Butterfly Conservation volunteers, numerous Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Comma, Large and Small White, Peacock, Gatekeeper and a single White Admiral – the locations of all these can be seen on Google Maps.

A stroll in Beckley Woods

On a walk in Beckley Woods today, a single male Brimstone was flying in the ride newly widened as part of the Rother Woods project.

Further up the main track, towards the power lines, I also encountered a pristine Peacock patrolling the track between the conifers, occasionally settling on the warm, sunlit ground.

The Forestry Commission are doing a fair bit of work to widen rides also, so it will be interesting to see what difference it makes this summer – assuming we get one this year!

Sword-grass Moth

On Monday evening I ran the Robinson MV trap here in my garden at Broad Oak Brede. Excluding the ones that scarpered when I opened the trap, the species count was 41:

Treble Lines
Light Brocade
Dark Arches
Dusky Brocade
Pale Tussock
Bright-Line Brown-Eye
Vine’s Rustic
Square Spot
Foxglove Pug
Broken-Barred Carpet
Great Prominent
Brimstone Moth
Peppered Moth
Straw Dot
Lobster Moth
Lime-Speck Pug
Elephant Hawk-Moth
Peach Blossom
Setaceous Hebrew Character
Shoulder-Striped Wainscot
Clouded Silver
Clouded Border
White Ermine
Pebble Prominent
Angle Shades
Large Yellow Underwing
Buff Arches
Figure Of Eighty
Mottled Beauty
Heart And Dart
Burnished Brass
Ghost Moth
Willow Beauty
Scorched Wing
Garden Carpet
Hebrew Character
Orange Footman

and… Sword-Grass!

Sword-grass moth

This particular moth hasn’t been recorded in Sussex since 2000 according to the County Recorder, Colin Pratt, who said “It probably migrated from the continent, although the last record was only about 9 miles away at Hurst Green.”

As a mothing novice myself, this just goes to show that everyone can improve our knowledge of species in our area. There are many knowledgeable “mothers” willing to share their knowledge and boundless enthusiasm and help you with identification.

Thanks to David Burrows for his id skills and considerable knowledge.