Country & Coast: Butterflies show spring is upon us

A red admiral butterfly, captured by reader Stephen Browne.
A red admiral butterfly, captured by reader Stephen Browne.
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SO FAR the most sorrowful sight of spring, for me, has been the discovery of a red admiral lying dead and forlorn in one of the aisles at a DIY superstore near Bingley.

Last autumn it must have wandered into this vast cathedral of wall plugs, paint cans and power drills to find a snug crevice in which to hibernate, but during a particularly cold snap a couple of weeks ago when the heating was at full blast it was fooled into believing that spring had arrived. Without quick access to its favourite nectar on garden buddleias or flowering ivy, it perished.

However, there have been plenty of heartening sights to soften the memory, and one was on Sunday at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where I counted four small tortoiseshell butterflies enjoying the warm sun as they fluttered through the gardens surrounding Magdalena Abakanowicz’s imposing cast-iron Ten Seated Figures.

The re-awakening of Lepidoptera from hibernation is surely every bit as uplifting as the arrival of bird migrants like swallows and warblers in spring, and I have been following the process on the social networking site, Twitter, where the Yorkshire Branch of Butterfly Conservation has diligently posted butterfly and moths sightings by its members.

A beautiful red admiral - this one thankfully very much alive - was photographed in the Bramley area of Leeds on February 7th. A few days later, reports of peacock butterflies were tweeted from locations as far apart as Castle Howard, Saltaire and Ilkley, while the first small tortoiseshells of the season were seen at Ripon and at Cottingham near Hull.

Since then the excitement of Yorkshire’s butterfly watchers has steadily built up through March. Male and female brimstones were spotted at the RSPB’s Old Moor nature reserve in the Dearne Valley, another turned up in York, while also at York single comma butterflies were reported, as was another at Burley-in-Wharfedale.

A fascinating cross-over of seasonal observations came in Leeds where last Friday a flock of waxwings - a bird that most birdwatchers associate with cold winters - was seen at the same time a tortoiseshell was merrily fluttering around.

Still to come in the next few weeks are sightings of those species of butterfly that tend to emerge in April or May, such as the gorgeous orange-tips and cute common blues, and if we get a longer spell of mild weather the chances are they will emerge sooner rather than later.

I’m still waiting for the first small whites of spring in my garden and speckled wood butterflies in heathland near my house. It’s a species that’s so much more common in Yorkshire than it was a couple of decades ago thanks to a generally milder climate.

The greatest delight of all will be later in the year when vast clouds of painted ladies arrive from the Continent. One of my most memorable sightings was of them feeding on every available patch of sea holly at Spurn one July day. Roll on summer!