The best places to spot butterflies in Cheshire
- Credit: Bob Wilkinson
For many, the arrival of butterflies symbolises the start of summer. Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Katie Piercy tells us which butterflies to look out for and where you might find them.
There are many stories about how butterflies got their name. Some say it comes from the butter-yellow colour of some of our commonest species, others that it originates from the old English words for ‘beat’ and ‘wing’, or even that butterflies were once thought to be witches in disguise out to steal cream and milk from the stores. And yet my favourite name for these enigmatic creatures is the ancient Greek, which is ‘psyche’ meaning ‘soul’.
Certainly for such small and delicate beings they do exhibit a whole lot of soul, but they are not always as fragile as they seem. Some butterflies cross seas in great migrations, live through the harshest of winters by lying dormant beneath the bark of rotting trees or frighten off the most vicious of predators with flamboyant scare tactics.
There are 59 species of butterflies in the UK and most of our common species are bright and big and happy to come visit us in our parks, gardens and local fields. Spotting them is merely a case of taking time to stop and look about us. But this may not always be the case, as around three quarters of butterflies are in decline across the UK, largely because of the intensification of agriculture and the loss of many of the habitats they rely on.
Conservation work on some of our rarest species has begun to bring them back from the brink, demonstrating that with a concerted effort we can save our butterfly species, and the other species which rely on the same habitats – those that are less obvious and easily missed.
But which species is which, how do they live and where? Here’s a brief guide to a few of our common Cheshire species.
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Often believed to be the original ‘butter’ fly, the brimstone male is a beautiful bright yellow. The only yellow butterfly to be seen in Cheshire, aside from the odd migrant, the brimstone is an easy butterfly to identify for first time spotters – even more so because its peak flight season is in April and May, when few other butterflies are on the wing.
The wings of this species are spectacularly shaped to mimic leaves, perhaps to camouflage it during its long winter sleep. Most butterflies overwinter as a caterpillar or a chrysalis, yet by surviving as an adult the brimstone can be active as soon as the weather brightens. The second generation will emerge around August, after having fattened on the leaves of alder and alder buckthorn. A medium sized butterfly, both males and females share the same form, but females are a much paler yellow and can be mistaken for a white butterfly at a distance.
Orange butterflies get a little complicated. In Cheshire you may come across the comma, the red admiral, gate keeper, small skipper, large skipper and small tortoiseshell, with a few others recorded in small numbers such as the wall, the small heath and the occasional migrant the painted lady. This may seem like too many to get to grips with but in fact these can quickly be identified. The comma has a wonderful shape, its wings ending in an undulating edge, as though crimping scissors have been put to work. Its overall bright colouring, with black markings, makes it one of the most orange butterflies you’re likely to see.
The red admiral by contrast is mostly black with only a set of orange stripes on its top and bottom wings. For the small tortoiseshell the top edge of the wings are a series of white, black and orange lines, while the edge of the wing is lined with blue crescents, outlined in black. Best of all, many of these species are common to gardens and will often sit sunning themselves on a wall, a flower or a catkin, giving you time to safely study them.
In Cheshire the large white, small white, green-veined white and orange-tip butterflies make up the collection of white species. The small and large whites, also known as cabbage whites for their partiality for cultivated brassicas, are both white with black tipped wings. However, as well as the size difference between the two, the black tips of the large white extend further and are darker, they also sport an additional black spot on their upper wings.
Both butterflies have a creamy underside while the green-veined white has prominent green or yellow veins across its wings. The male form of the orange-tip is easy to distinguish from the other whites as it has bright orange tips to its white wings, however the female can appear similar to the small white with its wings open. However both male and female have a beautiful mottled green pattern on the underside of their lower wings, making them easy to distinguish.
There are a number of small blue butterflies living across the British countryside, however many have specialist requirements or very small ranges. In Cheshire, only two blue butterflies are found in relatively large numbers; the common blue and the holly blue. Both live on a variety of habitats, including roadside verges and gardens.
Holly blue are so named because they like to lay their eggs on the flower buds of holly bushes. They emerge slightly earlier in the year, around early April, while the common blue doesn’t take to the wing till mid-May. The upper wings of males of both species are bright blue, while females of the holly blue have a dark band around the wing edge and the common blue female has a varying amount of brown across her wings. With a wingspan of roughly 30mm both butterflies are quite small. The most reliable distinguishing feature is the outside of the wings, which in the holly blue are pale blue and speckled, while the common blue has a orange and blue underside to its wings, with large dark spots.
Where to see butterflies in Cheshire
There are many excellent places to go looking for butterflies across Cheshire. Try Swettenham Meadows Nature Reserve, Aston Park or New Ferry Butterfly Park for a good selection of our common species. But wherever you go, the important thing is to pick a sunny day, with little or no wind and look out for flowers or other butterfly food plants. Remember not all butterflies fly at the same time of year or even like the same types of habitats so it worth making several trips during the year to see different species.