[Small heath butterfly]
Photo credit: Wendy Carter
Written by Lynda Relph-Knight
The flutterings of a small butterfly
Life is short but full of light as I flutter low over the grassy landscape. Sunshine draws me across heathland and hedgerow. The odd roadside verge adds variety. From April onward I witness nature’s shift from spring to summer in the vegetation along my path. I travel largely incognito, a brief stutter of pale orange, the all-seeing eyes on my wings focused on the ground. Only small creatures furrowing below can appreciate their beauty. But as I land and fold my wings back those secret eyes come briefly into view. September comes too soon, heralding my end. Life is short.
More about the small heath butterfly…
An urban garden is no place for a creature that prefers skimming over heathlands and meadows so I’ve not seen a small heath butterfly this year. In lockdown my exploration has been limited to nature books and websites.
I do though recall being captivated in my rural childhood by a fluttering flash of page orange. Those striking ‘eyes’ painted on to the underside of each wing caught my attention. They characterised summers spent lazing in grassy fields, squinting up to the sky through tufts of green interlaced with buttercups and daisies. The colourful undersides of those drab wings fuelled my youthful imagination.
Small heaths fly low over the ground from April to September. They lay each pale green egg on its own blade of grass. The eggs slowly turn straw-coloured and mottle over in the two weeks it takes to hatch a pale green caterpillar with light rust-coloured stripes along its body.
When the caterpillar hatches it is around 1.7mm long, doubling in length within a week before shedding its skin for the first of five times. Some 30 days on, it will be more than 6mm long, with tiny curved spines covering its head and body. From the end of September it will alternate between feeding and hibernating, depending on how cold the weather gets.
In early April the caterpillar sheds its skin for the final time. It is some 19mm long and spins a cocoon around itself to become a chrysalis. It emerges as a butterfly within a month and flutters on till its life ends in September.
Now though the flutterings are fewer. The UK Biodiversity Action Plan records a 57 per cent fall in numbers between 1976 and 2014, partly because plans to develop land took little account of the impact on wildlife. But media reports suggest climate change and the use of pesticides are also to blame.
There is evidence that things are changing. UK BAP reports that from 2005 to 2014 the rate of decline fell to 7 per cent and that small heaths were some 18 per cent more abundant.
We can hope that this revival continues as agencies such as the Nature Recovery Network evolve national strategies to preserve natural habitats generally. Popular interventions such as the rewilding initiative championed in The Archers on BBC Radio 4 will help spread the word.