National Trust on why Surrey is great for butterflies

This month, the National Trust's butterfly expert, Matthew Oates, explains why Surrey is a mecca for these stunning creatures

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2009This month, the National Trust's butterfly expert, Matthew Oates, explains why Surrey is a mecca for these stunning creatures

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Surrey has always been one of the best counties for butterflies, particularly for those associated with downland and woodland. The epicentre is the downland escarpment between Box Hill and Gomshall, which forms one of the richest butterfly landscapes in the British Isles. The area of interest extends northwards to include large areas of woodland. Indeed, a butterfly enthusiast residing in Dorking or Leatherhead is effectively living in paradise, especially as most of the best localities for butterflies are cared for by the National Trust, which has a good track record in conserving these beautiful creatures. As is the case in all other regions, a number of species have declined or even been lost from the county, mostly the lovely orange and black fritillaries. Such losses result mainly from changes in woodland management and strongly reflect national trends. However, the status and distribution of butterflies anywhere has never been stable and some species have actually increased in Surrey over recent years, usually due to conservation effort. In the summer time Surrey's butterflies are at their best during July and August, when first the woodland and then the downland species are on the wing. Bookham Common and Holmwood Common hold large colonies of the white admiral, our most graceful butterfly in flight. Look for this distinctive black and white butterfly around flowering bramble patches from late June. In Bookham, you'll also find a large population of the silver-washed fritillary, a gentle giant that also delights on bramble flowers in July. It is a renowned locality for the elusive purple emperor, too, which flies for four weeks from late June. The emperor doesn't feed from flowers, though the males visit unsavoury deposits, mainly canine, in the mornings. At Bookham, there are two known 'master trees', favoured clumps where the males gather each afternoon and put on spectacular acrobatic displays. In August, the Surrey Downs abound with butterflies. The slopes of Denbies Hillside often shimmer with the sky blue wings of male chalkhill blues, and smaller colonies occur on other stretches of down. From mid-August, they are joined by the electric iridescence of the Adonis blue, a former rarity that has increased as a result of downland conservation. These mingle with the more mundane common blue, itself a beauty. The silver-spotted skipper is a local speciality, occurring from Box Hill west to Abinger Hammer. It is one of the hardest butterflies to see, buzzing fast and low over the shortest turf. Even more elusive is the brown hairstreak, an indolent beast of scrub and wood edges, which spends hours sitting around comatose in ash trees. If lucky, you might also glimpse the golden wings of the clouded yellow, flashing along at the foot of south-facing downland slopes. If you fancy seeing butterflies in more genteel surroundings then you can do no better than the gardens at Polesden Lacey in Bookham. The more common varieties occur in profusion and the scarcer species wander in periodically to visit flowers such as buddleias.