Butterflies in our Backyard

by Sarah Dobson Author - Dan Danahar Butterflies

A personal journey for anybody

Butterfly Havens

In 1994 I was a curious and enthusiastic student undertaking my doctorate at the University of Sussex. During my research I discovered a scientific paper which described the shaping of chalk soils, so that formally sloped land could be turned into a series of banks. The scientists who wrote the paper had monitored the temperature around ant hills and had discovered that their shape affected the temperature at the soil surface. Their proposal, based on these observations, suggested that man-made attempts to do this could create conditions that may be ideal for rare chalk grassland butterflies, like the Adonis and Chalk Hill Blues.

This sounded like a great idea and I was keen to see if this “ecological engineering” approach to butterfly conservation would work. However, although my doctorate looked at the influence of microclimate on insects, I knew that trying to get through the university red tape and create such a habitat on the Falmer campus would be virtually impossible and so the idea lay dormant for 12 long years…

Then in 2006, the BBC working in conjunction with the National Lottery launched their “Breathing Places” scheme. What was so wonderful about this grant was that schools were allowed to apply and in those days, this was unusual. I set about completing the lengthy application in the sure knowledge that although many schools would be applying for money to create ponds and woodlands, I felt confident that no other school would be applying for a grant to create a “topographically modified chalk grassland, designed to manipulate microclimate at ground level, to create surrogate habitat for early successional chalk grassland butterfly species”. Suffice to say Dorothy Stringer School in Brighton, was awarded the full £10,000.

The work on the Butterfly Haven, on the Surrenden Campus, in Brighton, was completed the following year and soon I found myself giving talks to the parks department and to the city planners in Brighton & Hove, as well as to many other organisations. This was because in the first year alone the plant species increased by an order of magnitude from 10 species of wildflower being typically found in the amenity grassland - to nearly a 100 in the newly created butterfly haven. Over the 8 years that the haven has been in existence, 29 species of butterfly have been seen there and this equates to 76% of the butterfly fauna found in the city of Brighton & Hove.

Recently, the parks department of Brighton & Hove City Council have created an additional 15 new butterfly havens and were rightfully awarded with the Christian March Award (a national award) for outstanding contributions towards the conservation of Butterflies and Moths.

Counting Butterflies

In 2008, I was working on a Brighton & Hove committee that was trying to promote the wildlife (biodiversity) on school grounds and one of the things that we felt was important was the idea that people needed to be more engaged with local wildlife. So I suggested that the city counted butterflies. Everybody likes butterflies and they are representative of all insects, in that they respond to environmental change in the similar ways to other insects, so by counting them we would have a very good idea about what’s happening to other insects and therefore biodiversity as a whole. The committee liked the idea and so we launched the first “Big Biodiversity Butterfly Count” in 2009. This was a great success, with over a thousand individuals sending in their results and so the next year during the “International Year of Biodiversity-2010” I persuaded the council to lead a year-long celebration of different biodiversity related events that we would call “Big Nature” – a synonym for biodiversity and at the heart of which would be the “Big Biodiversity Butterfly Count”. Since then Big Nature has grown to become a local charity that serves the Brighton & Lewes Downs Biosphere Region, encouraging a renaissance in the relationship between the citizens of the Biosphere and the nature on their doorsteps by inspiring habitat creation, wherever its possible (www.bignature.co.uk).

We were lucky that Professor David Bellamy had helped us plant up our first Butterfly Haven and so he was keen to help us with the launch the Butterfly Count from our very own butterfly haven. In the afternoon of the same day children from many Brighton schools marched through the city to raise awareness for the count. During this second year we had invited the Sussex branch of Butterfly Conservation to participate in the count and so successful was it that later this national charity took it to a national audience and so it became the “Big Butterfly Count” that many will now be aware of.

My work with Butterfly Conservation, an organisation filled with fellow enthusiasts led to me mixing with a whole host of individuals who exude enthusiasm. I have come to learn through my life that few things motivate people more than enthusiasm and I was not immune to this phenomenon. Not only did I have a good academic understanding of why people needed to be more involved with nature but my involvement with Butterfly Conservation led to me developing an emotional dynamic, I had become “bio-empathic”.

The Biosphere

My involvement with the Biosphere project goes back to its proposal in 2007, when I gave a presentation at the original conference. As the concept has developed so it has become increasingly obvious to me that this is the perfect vehicle for engaging people with the natural world. So naturally when the Biosphere officer, Rich Howorth, asked me to consider writing a blog for the Biosphere website "Butterflies of the Biosphere" seemed an obvious project title. I agreed to do this because of my own passion for the group and my work with butterflies over recent years. This was my chance to really get to know the "Butterflies of the Biosphere".

The Brighton & Lewes Downs Biosphere lies at the heart of the intersection between West and East Sussex and so its butterfly community should clearly be a subset of this larger area. Sussex as a whole has just 44 species of butterfly, if we exclude the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene) which we think went extinct in the summer of 2013. My first step in getting to know the butterflies of the biosphere was to list all the species I judged one should be able to see within this newly designated region. The answer is thirty nine (39) species. Of course this doesn’t include potential migrants which may well increase this estimate.

Interestingly, the area covered by the Biosphere (390 square kilometres – a little larger than the Isle of Wight) makes up just 10% of the total area of the counties of East & West Sussex (3872 square kilometres).This is in sharp contrast with the percentage of butterflies (88.6%) in the biosphere (39 species) which are a subset of the entire Sussex butterfly community (44 species). What does this say to me….it says that the biosphere is an immensely rich environment, one that is able to support a very diverse flora and fauna and who knows we might even find more species of butterfly than expected?

So during 2015 I have been looking for all the 39 species found within the biosphere and I invite you to follow my adventures. I have been sharing these exploits with a range of guests because this trial is not a scientific journey but rather a personal one. With each species I have been giving the location and where possible some travel directions, by car, bus and train, so that you too can go to the same sites I have travelled to, to be sure to you can see these butterflies. Many of these exploits have been filmed and you can see them on my “Butterflies of the Biosphere” YouTube channel (as well as many others about the Biodiversity Education work I have undertaken over the years).

I hope to encourage others to look elsewhere, which is why, in addition to this Biosphere introduction, I have set up the “Butterflies of the Biosphere” Facebook group page. So if you see a butterfly somewhere in the Biosphere area, you too can post a photo of it and hopefully include some information about the location in which you found it. Where appropriate we will share this information with the Butterfly Conservation sightings page http://www.sussex-butterflies.org.uk/sightings.html

And so that you know what to look for, I have produced a gallery of the species we expect to see in the Biosphere and have pinned it to the top of the “Butterflies of Biosphere” Facebook page.

Where should I go to see butterflies?

Some good spots to see butterflies in our Biosphere include the following places:

  • West – Mill Hill Local Nature Reserve (Grid Ref: TQ 211 074) - great for skippers in the spring and alive with blues during the summer.
  • Central – Hollingbury & Burstead woods (Grid Ref: TQ 315 075) there are several good places to see the elusive White-letter Hairstreak, an Elm feeder and so the city is a hotspot for this enigmatic species.
  • East – Castle Hill National Nature Reserve (Grid Ref: TQ 373 068) - a high species complement that is heaving with Dark Green Fritillaries in June-July.

East – Malling Down Local Nature Reserve (Grid Ref: TQ 423 112) - a great site for the Adonis Blue, with massive population explosions from year to year.

  • North – Stanmer Park Local Nature Reserve(TQ 335 095) - join in the search for the Silver-washed Fritillary butterfly, which appears as isolated individuals from year to year here. As the woodland receives better management so this species has responded. New records for this species are sought from anywhere within the Biosphere.
  • South – Coast - migrant butterflies come over the Channel in the summer months to land on the Biosphere coastline, including Clouded Yellows and Painted Ladies. Records of migratory butterflies are always welcome.

I hope that you become as excited as I am about this great 2015 biosphere butterfly trek, if so it would be great to hear from you….

Dan Danahar

Biodiversity Co-ordinator, Dorothy Stringer High School


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