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Record spring brings out the butterflies - good and bad

Friday 04 May 2007

Our countryside and rural affairs commentator John Sheard welcomes the plethora of early butterflies brought out by the warmest April ever recorded - but worries for the future of his brassicas

BUTTERFLY Conservation, another of those charming British charities run by scientists use data supplied mainly by enthusiastic amateurs, reported this week that these wonderful creatures (well, most of them that is) started breeding in January and February this year.

And as we have just enjoyed the warmest April ever recorded in this country, this means that butterflies are now out and about in their thousands at a time when, traditionally, they should just be thinking of crawling out of their chrysalises.

green hairstreak
The green hairstreak butterfly
Photo: Dave O'Brien

This hasn't surprised me because there have been red admirals and even a peacock fluttering around my veg patch for some weeks now and most welcome they are. But on Tuesday, my mouth dropped, along with my heart, when I saw the first cabbage whites (there were four of them) laying their eggs on my cabbages.

Now this presents me with a dilemma that I have never faced so far in 35 years of vegetable gardening. The cabbages at stake, you see, were Greyhound, a pointed fast-growing spring variety and, usually, they have been consumed by my family before cabbage white caterpillars hatch.

As Greyhound is a soft, pointy plant with loose-growing leaves, the scores of huge, emerald green caterpillars due in a few days will be able to bury deep into the foliage, hidden away from not just my prying fingers but from the eyes of song birds for which they represent a welcome gift of protein for their nestlings.

So, as someone who tries to be as "green" in the garden as possible, I hate spraying edible plants with insecticides. In normal times, this plague of caterpillars does not arrive until summer, when my cabbages are the round, hard variety like Golden Acre. The caterpillars do, indeed, tuck into the outer leaves but these are easy to strip away and compost, leaving the hard, sweet, inner core virginal fore the steamer.

I shall have to explore more to find ways of saving my spring greens but, whilst we are the subject of butterfly dilemmas, the Yorkshire Dales National Park (YDNPA) is worried about the only green butterfly known in the British Isles, the green hairstreak (see picture).

This very rare insect could, or could not, be on the verge of extinction: the fact of the matter is that scientists do not know. It has always been rare because if lives on the high moors and feeds on bilberry plants, who berries have been collected for centuries by Dales folk to make jams and puddings.

the only butterfly in this country with green wings and when it is perched it closes them

Here again, there are pros and cons for the hairstreak's survival. Most species threatened with extinction have arrived at this touch-and-go stage because of habitat destruction. As many Dales traditions are at risk of being forgotten, does not-one collect bilberries any more, therefore the plant should be booming.

On the other hand, some similar fruits - cranberries being one of them - have recently been dubbed "super-foods" by health faddists, helpful in warding off all sorts of illnesses from cancer to cystitis. Has this send more people scurrying to the high fells to collect the barriers, thus damaging the hairstreak's delicate habitat.

Ian Court, the YDNPA's species officer, says: "We know relatively little about the distribution of the green hairstreak in the park, which makes it difficult to keep track of numbers and to ensure they are surviving here.

"It is unmistakeable, the only butterfly in this country with green wings and when it is perched it closes them, showing the green underside and white streaks. We are asking people who see them while they are out and about to make a note of the date, the place, including a grid reference, and the number seen."

  • The YDNPA has produced a leaflet and a form that should be completed and posted back free of charge by anyone who comes across this unique creature. Called 'Have you seen a Green Hairstreak butterfly this year?', it can be obtained from national park information centres and tourist information centres at Horton-in-Ribblesdale, Leyburn, Richmond, Settle and Skipton.

Your views:

  • I thought I'd let you know that I saw a Green Hairstreak in my garden today. I have lived at my current address for 9 years and have never seen one before, but it is so distinctive I am sure that is what I saw. I live in a hilly area of mainly sheep farm land, which normally is a pretty dry area, however NOT THIS YEAR!

    Sue White - Newburgh, Fife, Scotland


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