RICHARD WILLIAMSON: The orange-tips marks beginning of butterfly season

The butterfly season got off to a good start with this little beauty, the orange-tip. I saw it in April to start with but some were still flying in late-May in meadows, hedgerows, downland, and even parkland.

Monday, 5th June 2017, 10:00 am
Updated Thursday, 7th June 2018, 6:49 pm

This is a very pretty, rather small insect, which needs old grassland. I think it was the first butterfly I ever saw as a child, on my father’s farm at Stiffkey in Norfolk.

Here I should divert for a moment because older readers may remember how Stiffkey became infamous in the 1930s because of its eccentric vicar who spent time saving fallen women from the streets of London and giving them a chance to recuperate in the sanctuary of a pastoral setting in the countryside far from temptation. He was defrocked by the local gentry and ended his days in a circus putting his head into the mouth of a lion which eventually became bored with this act and shut its mouth.

Today things have changed and Stiffkey is back to normal as a small coastal village. The water meadows along the river still have their orange tip butterflies because they grow the plant which is crucial to orange tips, the cuckoo-flower (Cardamine pratensis). The flower was also called maid-of-the-meadows in those days and it is the first wild flower I ever noticed.

I was about five years old but I had not at that age made the connection between butterfly and flower. Orange tip caterpillars feed on its leaves though they might also feed on hedge mustard, horse radish, and garlic mustard.

The matrix of camouflage speckles on the underwings allow the adult to rest awhile on the tops of flowers with its wings closed and blend in with the freckled shadows of the herb layer where it spends most of its time. The orange tipped wings are only sported by the male. The female does not advertise herself in this way, but has token markings of rank but they are in black, and not very much black either. She is a dryad of the shady places and keeps a low profile, not wanting to be bothered by the males tearing up and down the hedges like blokes on motorbikes looking for damsels in need of solace.

This season I noticed there were very few females around in the early part of the season, and the males were becoming frantic in their search for them. The same happened to brimstone butterflies when in mid-May there was a plethora of males with their bright custard-coloured wings going mad in their search for even just one female.

Six males occupied a one hectare glade among the trees at Kingley Vale and they repeatedly swooped on a wandering small white butterfly thinking it to be a female of their own tribe, and attempted to join with it.

Female brimstone butterflies are whitish and easily muddled with cabbage whites. I examined many buckthorn tree leaves and found hardly an egg laid on the leaves by the female brimstones so can only hope they did come out of hiding in time to mate and set all those frustrated males at ease at last.