Large white life early stages: group of eggs, communal caterpillars, chrysalis with silken band around thorax
Role of butterflies in gardens
Butterflies are many people’s favourite insects and they add to the enjoyment of a garden. Although large and small cabbage white caterpillars can be very damaging to cabbages and other brassicas, other butterflies are harmless to garden plants. When visiting flowers to feed on nectar, butterflies have an opportunity to pick up pollen on their legs and bodies and so may help to pollinate flowers.
Encouraging butterflies in the garden
Attracting adults butterflies to your garden involves providing plenty of nectar-rich flowers in sunny flower beds, and leaving soft fruit to rot where they can feed on the juices.
To make a real difference however, we need to provide for all life stages of species, and this is a little difficult for butterflies, as many are quite food-plant specific, and don't feed as caterpillars on most conventional garden plants - except for the cabbage whites of course. This side of wildlife gardening has been rather neglected but is worth trying See the book by Jan Miller listed below.
It really is worth letting sections of your lawn grow long enough for the grass to flower. If you keep the margins trimmed, it will look "meant" rather than neglected, and you will provide habitat for "skippers" and many of the "browns" like the gatekeeper and meadow brown. Unfortunately most new lawns are pure dwarf perennial rye grass Lolium perenne
which isn't a suitable foodplant. Bents Agrostis
spp, Cocks-foot Dactylis glomerata,
spp, meadow grass Poa
spp, hair-grass Deschampsia cespitosa
and Yorkshire fog Holcus lanatus
are all excellent. Old lawns will usually have a wider mix of species, but if you are considering replacing your lawn, consider some of the grass mixes available from specialist firms such as Emorsgate
The brimstone butterfly uses alder and common buckthorn, which are small trees which can readily be squeezed into a moderate garden. The orange tip uses lady's smock Cardamine pratensis and honesty Lunaria annua which are both happy in a cottage-garden planting. They also use garlic mustard Alliaria petiolata which flourishes at the back of a shady border and is coarse and smelly, but attractive in flower.
All "vanessids" use common or small nettle Urtica dioica and U. urens, but this doesn't mean they need to be planted! Only large patches (4m2) are favoured and they have to be in a sunny situation. Nettles are abundant everywhere on waste ground so only plant them if you really like them. Many vanessids also take hop Humulus lupulus, and the golden hop var "Aureus" is a good garden climber.
For the "blues", encouraging or tolerating ivy Hedera helix and planting holly Ilex aquifolium will almost guarantee the holly blue will breed. Common blue and small copper feed on what are normally consider meadow flowers, birds-foot trefoil and sorrels, but they are perfectly easy (easier in fact) to grow in a flower bed and seeds are readily available. However, little research has been done on how to encourage these species, and it isn't clear how large an area would be needed to be effective.
Other sources of information
Web site of Butterfly Conservation website
on the status of Britain’s butterflies
Eeles, P. (2019) Life Cycles of British & Irish Butterflies. NatureBureau
Fox, R., Asher, J., Brereton, T., Roy, D. & Warren, M. (2006) The state of butterflies in Britain and Ireland. Pisces
Miller, Jan (2010) Gardening for butterflies, birds and other benficial insects. Saith Ffynnon Books
Newland, D., Still, R., Tomlinson, D. & Swash, A. (2010) Britain’s Butterflies. WildGuides Ltd
Porter, J. (2010) Colour Identification Guide to the Caterpillars of the British Isles. Apollo BooksThomas, J.A. and
Lewington R. The Butterflies of Britain & Ireland. Bloomsbury publishing
Sterling, P., Henwood, B., Lewington, R. (2020) Field Guide to the Caterpillars of Great Britain and Ireland
Bloomsbury Wildlife Guides
Page drafted by Andrew Halstead, reviewed by Andrew Salisbury, edited by Steve Head