The Meadow Brown is one of Britain’s most common butterflies and symbolises the arrival of summer as their numbers swell towards Summer Solstice. It is reliant on unkempt, scruffy places such as roadside verges and uncultivated fields because it lays its eggs at the base of long grass. With the loss of hay meadows and increased agricultural monocultures, the Meadow Brown is finding it harder to thrive. Fluttering across open ground in search of new territory often results in starvation or predation.
The Meadow Brown is a brown butterfly with patches of orange and a black eye with a white spot. It used to be known as the Devil’s Spy and this is reflected in its scientific name Maniola Jurtina which translates as ‘little spirit of the underworld’. This association relates to the black eye-spots which were seen as the Devil keeping a watch on the Earth’s inhabitants – like a Satanic spy-cam.
I took these pictures during my Butterfly Summer on my meanderings in a community orchard where the grass has been allowed to grow long. On a warm day the air is filled with the sound of grasshoppers. As I walk alongside the waving grass bees and butterflies spill into the air.
Until 2010 this was a sports field. Then the university decided that maintaining a field that flooded and was hard to access was too difficult, so rented it to the community for a pot of honey each year.
In our grandparents’ day there would have been species-rich wildflower meadows in every parish and coppice woods teeming with butterflies. These days a meadow like this is a rarity in an increasingly degraded ecosystem.
There are 59 species of butterfly found in the UK – two of these, the Painted Lady and the Clouded Yellow are regular migrants and the rest are resident. A report into the state of the UK’s butterflies in 2015 found that 76% of these butterfly species had declined over the last 40 years. Anyone with a garden can help butterflies by providing nectar-rich flowers. This will feed butterflies and also form a corridor for them to pass along to other sites.
Sometimes I feel I am walking through a field of gold. The gold is Ragwort, a native European plant, described by the poet John Clare as ‘shining blossoms… of rich sunshine’.
In her wonderful and inspiring book Wilding Isabella Tree talks about how Ragwort triggered intense alarm in her neighbours because it is poisonous to grazing animals. She points out that animals have lived with it for tens of thousands of years and avoid it unless it’s dried and chopped into their feed. Other species that are poisonous to animals include daffodils, foxglove, cuckoo pint, ivy, elder, yew, bracken and bryony but they don’t spread over pastureland like Ragwort.
There are no grazing animals anywhere near this field so I can appreciate Ragwort as one of the UK’s most sustaining hosts to insects. In all 177 species of insects in the UK use Ragwort as a major nectar source – and as my walks have shown these golden flowers are immensely popular with butterflies, including the Skipper in my last picture, happily feeding on a Ragwort flower.