Nothing sums up a Sussex summer more than watching our beautiful butterflies while they dance over the Downs, wander through our woods or circle us while we sunbathe in our back gardens.
We’re very lucky here in The Living Coast biosphere. We are surrounded by some great countryside and you don’t have to travel too far to find some fantastic butterfly habitats. The diversity of habitats here – woodlands, fields, parks and downland - means you could encounter up to 40 different species of butterfly throughout the year. As we head into the summer the number of different butterfly species you can see in The Living Coast area increases and July is the peak time to head out and hunt for them.
In the summer the chalk downlands of The Living Coast come alive. Head to Whitehawk Hill or Bevendean Down in Brighton, Castle Hill near Woodingdean or Malling Down in Lewes to enjoy a daily Blues festival - complete with plenty of singing and drinking!
Here the carefully-managed grazed chalk grassland provides ideal habitats for a wide diversity of plants including Kidney Vetch, Horseshoe Vetch and Bird’s-foot Trefoil. These plants are on the menu for the caterpillars of the blue butterflies; Common Blue, Small Blue, Chalkhill Blue and the incredible Adonis Blue. Believe me - you’ve never really seen the colour blue until you’ve seen a male Adonis Blue opening its wings in the Sussex summer sunshine!
Adonis Blue by Michael Blencowe
The blue’s caterpillars have a very peculiar and intimate relationship with ants. The caterpillars provide the ants with a sugary secretion from their bodies and, amazingly, even ‘sing’ to the ants by vibrating an organ on the back of their head. In return for a drink and a song they get a 24/7 security service from the ants. If other insects try to attack then the caterpillar’s bodyguards will bravely defend them.
Of course we don’t have to travel up on the Downs to see butterflies. Our gardens are fantastic miniature nature reserves and, if you’ve planted plenty of nectar-rich flowers, you’ll have the pleasure of watching butterflies dancing across your patio throughout the year. Most of these will be Sussex butterflies but did you know that some will have migrated all the way across the Channel to put in an appearance on your Buddleia? Painted Ladies can be abundant in some years and recently the rare Long-tailed Blue has ventured across the sea and has appeared in some Brighton and Newhaven gardens.
Painted Lady by Michael Blencowe
Surely the butterfly which is the star of The Living Coast is the White-letter Hairstreak, yet its presence here goes unnoticed as it is so elusive. The streets of Brighton, while not paved with gold, are certainly lined with elm trees – and these provide a home for this Hairstreak. Stand on any residential road and scan the elms with binoculars and the chances are that you will (eventually!) see a White-letter Hairstreak as it defends its treetop territory. You’ll also receive some concerned looks from local residents – so to maximise your chances of seeing this elusive butterfly (and to minimise your chances of being questioned by the police!) search for them in the Pavilion Gardens, Preston Park and Hollingbury Park.
White Letter Hairstreak by Jamie Burston
Every summer the charity Butterfly Conservation runs the big butterfly count for the public, which this year takes place for 3 weeks from Friday 14 July to Sunday 6 August. It’s a great opportunity to get involved with recording butterflies and a great excuse to sit and watch them – whether in your garden or out on the Downs – for just 15 minutes. This nationwide survey launched in 2010 and has rapidly become the world's biggest ‘citizen science’ survey of butterflies, with over 36,000 people taking part last year. The butterfly data gathered provides vital information to help us protect and conserve our butterflies, so please do get involved!
You can also have fun with others by going on local butterfly-watching walks led by members of the Sussex Branch of Butterfly Conservation.
Enjoy our butterflies this July!
Lewes Community Wildlife Officer
Sussex Wildlife Trust
P.S. A new stunning full-colour A2-size poster of all 40 species of the ‘Butterflies of The Living Coast’ is now available for just £2.50 – please email us if you would like to purchase a copy.