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The Fauna Of Tunbridge Wells And Rusthall Commons - Part 3

The earliest of the grassland species to appear is the Small Copper, with its distinctive metallic orange colouration. Emerging in May, it is also one of the latest butterflies to remain on the wing in autumn. The Common Blue also has an early generation, and it too can appear remarkably late in the year. The period from June to August exhibits the greatest diversity of grassland butterflies, with the appearance of five warmth-loving species that produce only a single generation of adults each year, and whose caterpillars feed on grasses. The Small Skipper and Essex Skipper are the most difficult of British butterflies to distinguish, but can be reliably told apart by the tips of their antennae which are orange underneath in the former and black in the latter. The Large Skipper differs in size, as its name suggests, and has an orange patch on the forewing against a darker background. The Meadow Brown and the smaller Hedge Brown or Gatekeeper are characterized by small eye-spots and light forewing patches on a darker brown background. Currently much scarcer than any of these is the Small Heath, a light orange-brown butterfly related to the two Browns but considerably smaller. The recently discovered Brown Argus, recorded only twice, is perhaps best interpreted as an elusive resident. A small brown butterfly with orange spots along the edges of its wings, it is easily mistaken for the female of the Common Blue, but the latter always has at least some blue scales, if only towards the base of its wings.

A common resident with somewhat different habitat preferences is the Speckled Wood, a distinctive butterfly with cream-white patches on a dark brown background which can be found from as early as April to as late as October. Although it breeds in open spots, its larvae feeding on grasses, the adults tend to frequent shady paths through woodland where the males defend territories consisting of a shifting patch of sunlight. The Purple Hairstreak is a much more elusive woodland resident, as the adult spends most of its life high in the branches of oak trees, where it feeds on honey-dew. Its whole history centres around oaks, the eggs being laid on the leaf buds and the caterpillars feeding on the young foliage in spring. This butterfly is characterized by its metallic purple forewing patches, but it is rarely seen at close quarters. The Ringlet, a blackish brown butterfly with distinctive cream-coloured rings on its underside, was first recorded on the Commons in the mid-1990s and may well become a permanent resident. It is most likely to be seen in summer at brambles along rides and woodland edges.

There are a number of more mobile butterflies which regularly breed on the Commons and can be counted as residents, although they are active over a wider area, and individuals move in and out from urban parks and gardens and the adjacent countryside. One familiar group of three species whose larvae feed on nettles are among the first butterflies to appear in spring, as they hibernate as adults on site, concealing themselves in hollow trees and other sheltered spots, from which they emerge on the first warm sunny day of the year. The bright orange Small Tortoiseshell and the Peacock with its multi-coloured eye spots are familiar garden butterflies, but they are equally at home in such wild habitats as are found on the Commons, particularly in more open areas. The Comma, an orange-brown butterfly with irregular outlines to its wings, has a preference for more sheltered spots, favouring wide rides and woodland edges and in the autumn often feeding at ripe fruits like blackberries.

Late April sees the emergence of the distinctive Orange-tip, whose bright orange eggs are surprisingly easy to spot on their main foodplant, garlic mustard. Only the males have orange-tipped forewings, the females being mainly white, but sharing the same mottled green hindwing underside pattern. In flight, female Orange-tips closely resemble the Green-veined White, but when settled the latter’s grey-green veins on the light yellowish hindwing underside are distinctive enough. Unlike the Orange-tip, which has only a single spring generation, the Green-veined White can be found throughout the year. Also present from spring to autumn is the Holly Blue, whose plain silver-white underside with a few black specks is the most obvious feature distinguishing it from the Common Blue. Its larvae feed on holly and ivy, and examples are generally seen along rides and woodland edges where its foodplants grow, rather than in the open areas frequented by its relative.


Page last updated: 22/01/07