Butterflies are one of the joys of spring - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Butterflies are one of the joys of spring

VETERINARY PRACTICE conservation correspondent looks back on the very warm and dry spring and discusses its short- and long-term consequences

APRIL this year was officially the warmest April on record. On a personal note, “our” swallows returned a good two weeks earlier than usual, a practical example of the warm weather’s influence on our native fauna. I wonder what would have happened to them had May been unseasonably cold!

This spring has also been drier than normal with the ground baking rock hard.

Early nesters such as blackbirds and starlings rely heavily on probing the earth for invertebrates like worms to feed their young. Hard ground must make this more difficult and could have a negative impact on their ability to find sufficient food. There will undoubtedly be winners and losers as a result of the weather.

Forest fires

Perhaps the most dramatic effect of the dry weather was the numerous forest and moorland fires that ravaged the land during late April and early May. No part of the UK escaped, with fires blazing in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and various locations in England.

The short-term effects of such fires are obvious. Large areas have been denuded of vegetation and of a wide range of invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals that were unable to flee a fire travelling rapidly and in changing directions.

The loss of these animals at the bottom of the food chain has a knock-on effect on those animals higher up which may need to move away in search of food, putting pressure on the residents of territories they now seek to occupy.

The loss of vegetation and habitat might also mean a shortage of nesting sites for birds right at the height of the breeding season and there is no doubt that some birds will have perished on their nests.

There are also the longer-term consequences to consider. Large areas of heather moorland have been destroyed which will take several years to recover. Even longer to recover will be the woodlands, many of them planted to replace natural woodland that has been removed by human activity over many centuries.

Natural re-shaper

On the positive side, fire is a natural re-shaper of the landscape. Although it destroys much wildlife and habitat, it also provides an opportunity for the recolonisation of the cleared land by different species which thrive in more “open” environments.

There will be wonderful opportunities for ecology-based research projects in the next few years.

Turning to some of the joys of spring, one of the first butterflies to be on the wing is the orange tip. Only the male is endowed with bright orange tips to the forewings and it makes a stunning sight as it flits from flower to flower in the spring sunshine.

Cowslips and forget-me-nots are popular food sources for the adults with lady’s smock or cuckoo flower the preferred plant for egg laying.

Female orange tips (pictured) are white with a black tip on the forewings and both sexes have mottled green underwings. The females resemble the small white butterfly but this species does not have the richly mottled underwing which is a clear distinguishing trait. Comma butterflies are one of our more unusual looking early fliers.

At first glance they could be thought to be a rather dull, small tortoiseshell with damaged wings but in the right light their colours are rich and vivid and their wing margins a ragged masterpiece. This is a species that appears to be thriving and their range is extending northwards every year and is now well into Scotland.

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