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Eight hardy souls donned boots and waterproofs, braved the dodgy weather, and explored Ansty Down on Sunday 15th May. Hoping to see the many spring butterflies that usually frequent this location, on a generally overcast and occasionally rainy morning, we were pleased to see five species. Crucially, this included the tiny Duke of Burgundy, the key butterfly we were hoping to spot. This species is on Butterfly Conservation’s list of Threatened species, so we are fortunate to have it in the vicinity.
We were joined by Dr Susan Clarke, ecologist, and expert on these (and many other) butterflies. Sue explained in detail what is known about the insect’s life cycle, what habitat it favours, how ideal site management is so difficult to determine and achieve, and how it is now more frequently seen on damp chalk hillsides than in coppice woodlands as in the past. Sue showed us how the north face of the Shaston Ridge between Burcombe and Donhead St Andrew represents the most significant location for the Duke of Burgundy in the country. This long string of interconnected unimproved grasslands provides the right habitat for a chain of colonies which, currently at least, appear to be vigorous enough to ride out good and bad breeding years.
We were very fortunate that the clouds cleared, and the sun came out briefly when we were in a patch of ideal habitat. Peter immediately spotted one and soon a few others were seen nearby. These were males, perching in prominent position to sun themselves and keep an eye out for females. They allowed us to approach and get good close views of the striking brown and orange chequered markings and even to see that the male only has four legs.
As well as adult butterflies we also spotted numerous Twayblade Orchids, a large Drinker Moth caterpillar and a large number of Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars feasting on a bank of nettles.
Despite disappointing weather, we enjoyed a very informative walk and came away appreciative of having such an important insect colony nearby.
By Andrew Graham
Photos: Julia Willcock
Photo: Barn owl
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