Tony Jackson’s Country Casebook

Tony Jackson

Tony Jackson - Credit: Archant

This month our columnist finds comfort in the return of some garden visitors after a long absence

For more years than I care to recall I have taken a deep delight and interest in butterflies and moths and though today collecting specimens with a net has long been replaced by the camera, I confess that I have several cabinets, their drawers filled with neat rows of set specimens, not only from this country but also from abroad.

That was then and today I far prefer to rear and breed these delightful insects for release and though, to some purists, this may perhaps sully the truly wild population it is surely of overall benefit.

Two years ago, in 2012, the butterfly population of these isles, already in a parlous state, suffered a disastrous crash in numbers. Once common species, such as the handsome small tortoiseshell, red admirals, brimstones and peacocks, became rarities and I recall that a large, handsome Black Knight buddleia in my garden, which usually swarmed with a variety of butterflies when it bloomed, was virtually deserted.

What a change 12 months can bring! Last summer, weeks of sunshine wrought their magic and, to the astonishment and delight of the entomological world, farmland butterflies were back. Brimstones, common blues, small coppers, small and large skippers and small tortoiseshells bounced back in astonishing numbers.

For my part I watched and surveyed nettles growing under a thorn hedge in a grass keep field we take for summer grazing and was delighted to see, day after day, more small tortoiseshells laying eggs on the outermost fringe of nettle heads. Soon hundreds of tiny black caterpillars were hungrily gnawing the leaves, ensconced in fine webbing. A few weeks later my buddleia was swarming with these butterflies, peacocks, red admirals and whites. Tortoiseshells, incidentally, prefer young growing nettles for their eggs. Fortunately the first nettle growth in April had been cut, so the new growth provided ideal conditions for these butterflies.

However, there are always winners and losers as a recent report on Devon’s wildlife makes clear. Otters and dormice have remained stable throughout the county, but barn owls and great crested newts, whilst not suffering substantial declines do face habitat loss. The biggest worry in the West Country centres on curlews which, although still regular visitors to estuaries, no longer breed on Exmoor, while breeding pairs in upland areas have severely declined.

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Sadly, the high brown fritillary is in danger of extinction. This handsome butterfly, a lover of coppiced woodlands where violets thrived, was once common to East Anglia, the southern counties and both Devon and Somerset. Now it is a very great rarity.

Sadly, many of the West Country woodlands face threats from invasive species such as rhododendrons, grey squirrels, too many fallow and red deer and disease such as ash dieback. However, on a positive note grants and advice to South Devon farmers have greatly improved habitat for cirl buntings and other farmland wildlife.

It is a constant battle by conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts to try and improve the landscape, habitats and water in balance with farming interests and the demands of local communities for expansion.

On another note, by the time this column is swallows, house and sand martins should once again returned to this country and their previous nesting haunts. However, for the past two years, despite the advantage of a large barn we have been deserted by swallows. Previously we would host up to five pairs, each producing at least two broods. It was a joy to watch the birds hurtling in and out of the open doors and to watch them hunting for insects over the fields and the garden pond.

Last year a pair arrived in late April, inspected the premises, and decided they could find a better site for their nest! That was the last we saw of them. Neighbours, too, who had always hosted swallows, found that they too had been deserted. Hopefully, by the time this is read at least one pair of twittering swallows will have deigned to accept our hospitality.