Chalk grassland is one of the richest habitats in Western Europe. Now, thanks to agricultural intensification, fertiliser and chemical application, fragmentation and unsuitable management we have lost much of what once was. The UK holds 50% of the worlds remaining chalk grassland, now isn’t that a reason for us to stand up and manage it well?
On average chalk grassland is home to 40 species per m2, astounding! Many of these species are rare plants and animals that can’t live elsewhere. For example, the Small blue butterfly which needs Kidney vetch to lay its eggs on or the Adonis blue which needs Horseshoe vetch. Not only butterflies but reptiles, skylarks, grasses and wildflowers all call chalk grassland their home.
Some of the wonderful plant species found on chalk grassland include: quaking grass, betony, marjoram, harebell, wild basil, eyebright, Deptford pink and milkworts. Not mentioning the wonderful orchids such as the Pyramidal (left) and Bee orchid (right).
One of my favourite things about chalk grassland is the closer you look, the more you see.
Chalk grassland is a managed habitat, without human input eventually scrub would take a hold and the area would transition to woodland. So, good management requires some form of grazing (at the correct level), scrub management and rotational mowing at certain times of year to create a mosaic of micro habitats and variation in sward height.
The flowers pictured are two of the more common species of orchid, but there are lots of really diverse and magnificent specimens to look for.
At this time of year there seem to be plenty of insects on the wing, every time I walk along a woodland ride I am distracted by a fluttering butterfly.
This year I have set up a butterfly transect at Leith Hill, a site that I look after as a Ranger, so I am learning to identify butterflies, their flight patterns and behaviour. Today I am going to write about the butterflies I spotted on a woodland walk in Kent, close to where I live.
One of the first butterflies spotted gliding along a woodland ride was the White Admiral (Limenitis camilla). The flash of white on the wing enables easy identification, even at distance. This butterfly is a UK BAP priority species because population appears to be decreasing on monitored sites.
Although the White Admiral was probably my favourite sighting of the day, there were many other butterflies along the woodland rides at Toys Hill. Although the majority of our blue butterflies are usually found on grassland, there is one, the Holly Blue which can be spotted on a number of different habitats as long as its larval food plant is present (holly and ivy). The numbers of this species fluctuate greatly from year to year, it is believed that this is due to parasitism by Listrodomus nycthoemerus, a parasitic wasp who’s sole host is the Holly Blue! This butterfly has two broods a year so can be seen fluttering about between April and the end of August.
The whites seemed to be out in force today. I still struggle to identify the whites from one another whilst they are in flight. Bill, from Butterfly Conservation, gave me some useful tips; ‘The large white looks more glossy’. Although I am sure that this will come to help me in the future, at present I still struggle. So, I decided to take a butterfly net with me, to observe flight closely and then net so I could identify properly and try to learn more about their flight pattern. This however was easier said than done, it seems that I haven’t yet mastered the netting technique. I did however manage to net one Green-veined white and a Large white, both beautiful although I feel I am still no closer to being able to identify on the wing.
The Comma (Polygonia c-album) with its distinctive wing shape can be spotted along many a woodland ride. Its vivid colouration is always a sight to behold. This butterfly, although struggling in 1800s, can now be seen throughout most of England and Wales. Its favoured larval food plant is Common Nettle, if you are looking to encourage butterflies into your garden consider leaving a ‘wild’ patch and encourage nettles to grow.
Butterfly Conservation are asking people to get out and record the butterflies they seen in open spaces around the UK. This citizen science project is a great way for conservationists to learn more about the population and distribution of our UK butterflies. Click here to get involved.