Gardening: The butterflies should have a ball: Philip Bowler labours to create a five-star habitat for fussy fritillaries - and they treat the place like a hotel. Anna Pavord reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT HAS been a rotten year for butterflies. Cool, cloudy, wet weather is rather worse for them than it is for us. Deprived of holiday picnics on the beach, we can at least loiter in pubs and cafes. Butterflies have fewer options. Even buddleias, the butterfly's motorway service stations, have, in our garden, attracted only a few dazed-looking peacocks. The good news is that there are no cabbage whites on the greens.

The things that butterflies like in our garden - old hollies, ivy, elms and wild grasses - have happened by accident rather than design, so I have no reason to be concerned by the insects' absence this season. But Philip Bowler is taking the whole thing personally. Since 1985, when he and his wife, Ros, moved to their house, Valezina Hillside, in Heage, Derbyshire, he has worked obsessively to turn the whole of his half-acre patch into a Shangri-La for butterflies.

For the past three summers he has been in ecstasy. The small skipper settled in his Yorkshire fog grass. The large skipper laid eggs in the cock's foot. Caterpillars of the green-veined white fed on his honesty; the progeny of the small skipper munched his sorrel. Late broods of the holly blue sipped nectar from the ivy that covers the gable end of his house, and small coppers feasted on his ragwort.

Now, says his wife, he comes close to a nervous breakdown every weekend. Despite devoting most of his time when not at his job with Thornton's Chocolates to making Valezina (named after a variant of the silver wash fritillary) the creme de la creme of butterfly stopovers, he has seen scarcely one all summer. It doesn't help to tell him it is all the fault of the weather. It takes more to please a butterfly than planting the odd buddleia, as you understand when you walk round Valezina, which is open for the first time this year under the National Garden Scheme. Nectar is the butterflies' fuel. It keeps them flying. But if you want them to stay in the garden, you have to provide a comfortable place for the females to lay their eggs and five-course meals for the caterpillars.

The nectar bit is relatively easy. As well as the buddleia, you need alyssum, aubretia, catmint, golden rod, honesty, lavender, Michaelmas daisies (mauve seems to be the preferred colour here), sweet william, thrift, valerian and Sedum spectabile whose fat, juicy flowerheads fill the September gap when the buddleia is over. If there is a choice, use single flowers rather than double, which get butterflies' tongues in a twist.

The small square of garden immediately outside the kitchen window at Valezina is filled with these flowers. Beyond that it is carefully managed wilderness. In fact, Mr Bowler finds the wild part of the garden far more difficult to keep than the garden proper. Wild flowers will not stay put. Bush vetch this year has made a takeover bid for the entire hillside.

It also took him a while to realise how fussy butterflies are about grass. At the outset, he used to have a big clean-up in the wild garden before winter. Then he learnt that the eggs of the small skipper butterfly overwinter on the Yorkshire fog grass, tucked neatly into the sheath made by the leaf as it coils round the grass stem.

Most of the wild part of the garden lies on a hillside that falls away from the house. The soil is relatively poor, which is a help, since wild flowers generally favour starved ground, where they are not crowded out by the coarser grass. There is plenty of ragwort, tawny-coloured fox and cubs, and bird's-

foot trefoil, which provides food for the caterpillars of the common blue.

Mr Bowler has also planted masses of alder buckthorn to try to attract the brimstone, a wonderfully sulphurous butterfly with a small orange spot on its wings. Although to us the buckthorn seems an unremarkable tree, to the brimstone it is heaven: it can pick one out as though it had a neon light flashing over it saying 'cheap eats'.

Butterflies generally favour open, sunny sites, but they also need protection from the wind, which at Valezina is provided by a shelter belt of elm suckers. The white-letter hairstreak butterfly is entirely dependent on elm, and populations crashed when Dutch elm disease arrived in this country.

We lost 30 elms in the mid-Seventies, and the suckering regrowth seems unable to get beyond a certain size before it is reinfected. Mr Bowler is watching his anxiously. The hairstreaks use only the tops of elm trees, so they are not easy butterflies to study, and nobody is yet sure if sucker growth is going to be good enough for their discerning palates.

Few will be as single-minded as Mr Bowler in his pursuit of the butterfly, but gardens have an important place in the web of habitats that butterflies need to survive. Simplest to provide are refuelling stations, a good range of nectar-producing plants. Mr Bowler would add plants such as marjoram, dandelion, hemp agrimony, devil's-bit scabious and sweet rocket to my earlier list of garden flowers.

It is more difficult to persuade butterflies to stay with you permanently. Nettles are not necessarily the answer. They are important food plants for the caterpillars of the peacock, the comma, the summer-visiting red admiral and the small tortoiseshell (the most common butterfly in British gardens), but a survey carried out by Dr Martin Warren of Butterfly Conservation showed that butterflies rarely use nettles in a garden setting, preferring those on roadside verges and other wild places. There is no shortage of nettles, and the butterflies that use them are wandering species, well equipped for long flights if they are properly tanked up.

Dr Warren considers ivy to be the most important plant that gardeners can provide for butterflies. This supplies food for the second brood of the holly blue, and a place to overwinter for the brimstone. Of all the species of butterfly, the holly blue is the one that Dr Warren believes can be most helped by gardeners. The first brood feeds on holly, which is a handsome, if slow, garden tree, and they also take to dogwoods and the snowberry, Symphoricarpos albus, both useful garden plants.

But I worry about Mr Bowler, brooding over his ragwort and scanning the tops of his elms with his binoculars, waiting for a hairstreak. If, I wonder, I were to capture the two red admirals that came to the buddleia this morning and drive them up to Derbyshire, would that cheer him up?

Valezina Hillside is open by appointment only: telephone 0773 853099. Admission pounds 1. For more details on how to help butterflies in the garden, contact Butterfly Conservation at PO Box 222, Dedham, Colchester, Essex CO7 6EY (0206 322342). Membership is pounds 10 a year.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments