Butterflies not seen in Suffolk for over 50 years are beginning to reappear at Wilderness Reserve. Resident ecologist Steve Piotrowski explains why
“It’s been an amazing year,” says Steve Piotrowski, estate ecologist and self-confessed lepidopterist (butterfly lover). He’s speaking about the increase in numbers of butterflies in the woodland and meadows of Wilderness Reserve.
New guests include the silver-washed fritillary, one of Britain’s most striking species. Its vivid orange upper side is broken by a pattern of black spots; the underside of its hind wings are attractively marbled with silver and green.
The eye-catching marbled white butterfly, typically associated with the chalk downs of southern Britain, was lost to Suffolk for over 100 years, but last summer was seen in abundance at Wilderness Reserve.
Steve is also pleased about the return of the white-letter hairstreak, a butterfly that relies on the presence of elm trees for its caterpillars to feed. It draws its name from the characteristic white line – in the form of a “W” – found on the underside of the hind wings.
But, as Steve points out, none of this is by accident.
“The increase is down to the development and good management of the woodland,” he says. They fly around the glades and rides looking for nectar-rich plants – hemp agrimony is a particular favourite – and a safe place to lay their eggs.
The other major benefit to butterflies at Wilderness Reserve is the significant amount of wildflower meadows that have been cultivated. They’re, of course, great for guests, but they also help butterflies to thrive.
In particular, the brown argus loves those areas. “It used to be an incredibly rare butterfly,” says Steve, “But now populations are gradually expanding within the county and they’re prolific at Wilderness Reserve.”
Steve’s first love is birds. “In spring, birds are singing and in good plumage, taking up territory. Then there’s the autumn period where you have summer birds leaving and winter birds arriving. They’re both very interesting periods for an ornithologist,” he says.
But, he explains, there’s a period in the middle when there’s not much happening in the bird world. “We tend to go on and look at butterflies and dragonflies – more of the insect world – and that’s where my passion for butterflies first began.”
In the early 80s Steve wanted to know what the distribution of butterflies was like in Suffolk. But nobody knew, so Steve was asked to do a survey. Duly, he organised the Suffolk Butterfly Survey and then went on to write his first book, The Butterflies of Suffolk.
The figures were dispiriting. “There’s a lot of intrigue about what happened to all of the butterflies. Right up until the 1950s, every woodland was covered in them and they just all disappeared,” he says.
One of the main reasons was thought to be myxomatosis, which saw the rabbit population decimated and, in turn, resulted in ungrazed woodland. Many of the butterfly’s favourite food plants – violets being one – were covered up and therefore inaccessible.
When Steve did his first survey there were only 29 species of butterflies breeding in Suffolk.
“Wilderness Reserve has got 28 already!” he says. “It really is one of the best butterfly sites in the whole of the country and that’s mainly down to good land management.”
They gather in great abundance around the wildflower meadows at Sibton Park on sunny afternoons.
In the height of summer, you’ll find common blue, brown argus, gatekeeper, meadow brown, small copper and hairstreaks, along with large, small and green-veined butterflies.
“Purple hairstreaks normally feed high in the canopy, but they often flutter down to take nectar from flowering brambles at eye level,” he says.
They like to bask in the sun with their wings spread, exposing the iridescent dark purple-blue upper side of the males or the more brilliant purple patches on the fore wings of females.
But there’s one butterfly he hasn’t seen yet: the dazzling purple emperor – one of Britain’s most elusive butterflies. “We’re looking to see whether we can develop the habitat for that. All of these butterflies need a specific reliable food plant,” he says.
The purple emperor is already at a site nearby so he’s confident that if the Wilderness Reserve team builds the right habitat they’ll come.
In the meantime, guests can book in to join Steve or one of his expert team of Rangers on a fabulous nature trail activity through the estate, any time of the year.
Children are welcome along too: Steve will provide them with bug boxes and their very own children’s binoculars.
To find out more about Steve and the work he does in and around Suffolk and Norfolk, visit suffolkbirding.co.uk.