The Butterflies of Nottinghamshire
N.B. New Recorder from early 2021
Send your records to: Steve Mathers.
There are about twenty species of butterfly that an observant but casual lepidopterist will see around Nottinghamshire on rambles and in gardens. Others require some dedicated effort and preparation. In total there are about 34 species that have been recorded in Notts with many new ones re-appearing in the 2010s all of them in Rushcliffe!. In a good year (when Clouded Yellow and Painted Lady are around) it is possible to see about 30 of these without leaving the county.
"Carr" refers to The Invertebrate Fauna of Nottinghamshire, 1916 by JW Carr.
The date following each species account is the national average first sighting date for the years 2008 to 2017.
Brimstone One of the earliest on the wing (and also one of the latest too). The bright buttery yellow male is unmistakeable but they very rarely seem to rest for a photo or to provide a leisurely close view. They can be seen virtually anywhere around Rushcliffe and are most obvious from March to May. 10th January.
Brown Argus This was a specialist species of chalky grassland and occurs at Gotham hills where the grass is grazed low to the ground. More recently it seems to have become more liberal in its requirements and it is found at Cotgrave Forest and Cotgrave Colliery (but not any longer!). It can be confused with female Common Blue, which can be quite brown and then resemble Brown Argus. If there are male Common Blues flying it is not safe to assume that the brown ones are all females of that species. Brown Argus has not even a hint of blue on wings or thorax. 28th April.
Chalkhill Blue There were reliable reports of at least 2 Chalkhill Blues in Rushcliffe in 2013 - one at East Leake and one near Radcliffe on Trent. These are extraordinary records.
Comma Like the Brimstone, the Comma over-winters as an adult so can be seen early in the year, but they are most numerous in late summer. They are widespread and love to feed on over-ripe blackberries into October. Their bright coppery appearance often triggers thoughts of a fritillary! 21st January.
Clouded Yellow I found my first Nottinghamshire Clouded Yellows in 2013. Two at Gotham Hills on 11th August and 1 at Cotgrave Colliery on 18th August. The species is reported from other parts of Notts so it must have occured in Rushcliffe in recent years. It is an irruptive migrant this far north but annual in southern England. Carr describes the "Clouded Yellow year" of 1900, when one collector gathered 50 specimens in two hours on the Foss near Cotgrave (and they remained plentiful there weeks later). There have been several irruption years in the past two decades. There was one in an East Leake garden on 8th September 2019.
Common Blue This species likes dry, short grassland where the food plant, Bird's-foot Trefoil grows. I've seen them on the East Leake Hills, Cotgrave Forest, Holme Pierrepont, the Great Central Railway, Rushcliffe CP, Bingham LP and elsewhere. There were literally hundreds on the old Cotgrave colliery site in mid-August 2013. A blue butterfly in Rushcliffe gardens is far more likely to be a Holly Blue.19th April.
Dark-green Fritillary In 2011, reports of a definite fritillary in Cotgrave Forest were followed up and this species was found to be present. Scattered populations in Derbyshire and elsewhere have been doing well, but this was quite unexpected and very exciting (though there is the possibility that they were released by a breeder). They were seen again in July 2012 and July 2013 so it seems they have established themselves there. Cotgrave Forest has been managed quite well for wildlife in recent years and this is just reward. Carr describes the species as rare in Notts even at the turn of the 20th century and mentions just one site, Bunny Wood, as being reliable. Since 2014, about the time that Woodlands for Sale took over the land, management of the rides deteriorated and this species was not reported for several years until 2020 when seemingly reliable sightings were made. 30th May.
Dingy Skipper In Nottinghamshire, this is a species that is now confined to brown-field sites such as disused railways and former pits. It is now very sparsely scattered across the county and well established at Cotgrave Country Park. The Teversal and Pleasley trail is a well known site. 12th April.
Essex Skipper A species that is spreading its range away from its historically southern counties. It is extremely similar to the Small Skipper, which is fairly common locally. When a “small” skipper was seen in Keyworth Meadow in 2007, I checked it carefully and it proved to be Essex Skipper – because of its black (rather than brown) antennae tips. I have since found it at many sites including road verges. It is one of the latest species to emerge with a recent mean date of 17th June.
Gatekeeper Not particularly common in gardens, though it likes some garden herbs such as oregano and is easily found along the local footpaths in late July and August. 7th June.
Green Hairstreak As with the other hairstreaks this is a difficult one to see and and it is sparsely distributed locally. There is a strong population at Cotgrave CP (I saw many around the site during the 'lockdown spring' of 2020) and another around the parking area at Blotts Pit (Skylarks NWT) at Holme Pierrepont though it may be encountered almost anywhere that its foodplants grow (though by no means all!). 1st April.
Green-veined White This is one of three species that needs a careful look otherwise they may be passed off as Small Whites. There are subtle differences in the way they fly but the key point is to observe the underside of the wings when they rest. As the name implies, this otherwise plain butterfly has the veins depicted in pale green. It is common everywhere from April to May and again in August. See also Orange-tip. 20th March.
Grizzled Skipper This is one that needs special effort to see as it is known at just four localities in Rushcliffe. Bingham Linear Park is one but you need to walk south as far as the R Smite to find them and they were at a low ebb recently. Another scattered colony exists around Barnstone and Langar, the lakes area being good and there are others around Flawborough in the north-east of the Borough. This tiny inconspicuous species is the subject of special conservation measures sponsored by SITA as it is a butterfly with particular habitat requirements and is a threatened species. The Great Central Railway near East Leake is a stronghold but it is not accessible to the public. Search carefully where Cinquefoil and/or Wild Strawberry grows over bare soil or stones. 5th April.
High Brown Fritillary Carr cites one record of a single at Gotham Hills on 5th August 1906. It is now nationally very rare and declining rapidly.
Holly Blue In most years I have this gorgeous insect in my garden but in others it doesn’t appear. It is on the edge of its range in Notts and it seems to expand then shrink back southwards. It is powdery blue, rather than azure as in the Common Blue but very much a garden insect especially of you have ivy or holly nearby. 12th March.
Large Skipper This is not a species that will normally occur in gardens for it depends on lush rank grassland for its food plant. This skipper (and Small and Essex) are a distinctive shape, resting with their wings overlapping and some careful observation is necessary to be sure of the species but this one is not difficult once known. 18th May.
Large White I can vouch for the pest status that gardeners give this species having witnessed my Purple-sprouting Broccoli devoured by the ravenous caterpillars. They can be told from Small Whites by their larger size and more extensive blackish wing tips. 12th March.
Marbled White A few were reported from the 10km squares that incorporate Rushcliffe, during the 1995-99 years of the Millenium atlas. Since about 2011 the species has been present at Bingham LP and I saw one at Gotham Sandbanks on . 6th June.
Meadow Brown These are a little bit like big Gatekeepers and just as common in gardens and farmland. They have a rather grey and brown appearance and fly from June to September. Early season Ringlets are obviously blackish but as they bleach they become less easy to tell from Meadow Browns. 20th May.
Orange-tip The male of this species will not be confused but the female looks like Small or Green Veined White. Again a look at the underside of the hindwing will differentiate them as this species has clouded green areas on an otherwise white wing – not just the veins as on Green-veined. It is common and widespread. 17th March.
Painted Lady This is a migrant species and although it gets to southern England most years it doesn’t always show up in Notts. When it does it can be very common and will bustle for space on the buddliea with the other showy species. Its pink and black markings are distinctive. 2009 was a very good year for this species though the poor summer prevented later broods producing massive numbers. I see at least one or two in most average years. 31st January.
Pale Clouded Yellow I know of no recent records but Carr cites four near Cotgrave in August 1900, one at Upper Broughton in Sept 1900 and one taken near Plumtree in 1901.
Peacock One of the earliest and easiest to identify. Everyone is familiar with this large and distinctive butterfly which is very common in gardens. 3rd January.
Pearl-bordered Fritillary Not present in Nottinghamshire now. This species is still one of the more common fritillaries in southern England and was seen in Cotgrave Forest until the 1970's.
Purple Emperor One (or more) was seen in Cotgrave Forest in 2015 and a keeper told me personally that he had seen them there for the previous few years (but not known what they were and he had not reported them). They were present in 2016 and again in 2017 by which time they were attracting large numbers of admirers from many parts of the midlands. In 2020, they were still present in good numbers.
Matthew Oates in his book His Imperial Majesty (Bloomsbury 2020) says that they were known from the Sherwood area since 1859 but that they disappeared from Nottinghamshire (or became undetectable) in 1939. Unfortunately the rest of the account on the Purple Emperor's status in Nottinghamshire is confused, speculative and unreliable. He writes that the species was introduced to Cotgrave Forest in the mid-1960s and states the source of the introduction saying that 'the butterfly's presence there remained a secret until 2015'.
Naturalists, though not necessarily pure lepidopterists, have explored this woodland throughout this time and no suggestion of scarce butterflies have come to light since Dave Wood and others recorded Pearl-bordered Fritillaries there in the latter decades of the 20th century until the Dark-green Fritillary was found in 2011. To suggest that a population of Purple Emperors was present there, undetected for more than 50 years is absurd.
I will accept that introductions were made in the 1960s but they must have failed and the secretive nature of more recent introductions make it hard to know the derivation of the present population. The appearance in 2011 of Dark-green Fritillary and the continuing presence of Silver-washed Fritillary since 2013 and Purple Emperor since a couple of years prior to 2015 suggests to me that recent introductions are the origin of these populations.
Oates then confuses Cotgrave Forest with Cotgrave Country Park, 3km to the north and a disused colliery site (of considerable interest, with Green Hairstreaks and Dingy Skippers). Cotgrave Forest itself has been largely sold off in parcels to private owners who manage their plots as they please whilst the rides (where the sallows are) are generally not managed at all. 22nd June.
Purple Hairstreak There are records from around Old Wood at Bunny and it occurs along the ride off Laming Gap Lane in Cotgrave Forest but this is a very elusive insect and spends much if its time near the crown of oak trees where it feeds on honeydew. It is probably more widespread than records suggest. 10th June.
Red Admiral Like the Peacock, this species too is very distinctive, quite common and enjoys late autumn sunshine well into October. It was once considered unable to survive our winters but is now one of the most likely butterflies to be seen flying on mild winter days. There was one flying in my garden on the shortest day of 2011! 3rd January.
Ringlet Early in the season, Ringlets look black but they bleach in the sun and by August can resemble the more frequent Meadow Brown. They are less likely to be found in gardens and Cotgrave Forest is a good place for them. They are not usually on the wing until July. 8th June.
Silver-washed Fritillary Formerly present, according to Carr, quite widely in the first decade of the 20th century. Locations given are Rowhoe Wood (Widmerpool), Owthorpe and Bunny Woods, woods about West Leake and Gotham and Plumtree. The species was already in decline by then with the reduction of coppicing being blamed. In late July and August 2013 several sightings of this species were reported in Rushcliffe with at least 2 separate reports from Cotgrave village. They were present in good numbers in 2020 in Cotgrave Forest and now seem to be firmly established there. 12th June.
Small Copper A pretty little, bright butterfly that is widespread but in low numbers. Not a regular garden visitor but they occur for example at Keyworth Meadow, Skylarks and on Bunny Moor. 21st March.
Small Heath This species is widely distributed in small numbers, preferring dry grassland and post-industrial locations such as old railways. Its undersides closely resemble the Gatekeeper and it always rests with its wings closed. However, with practice it can readily be identified in flight and the first generation is on the wing before any Gatekeepers emerge. Bingham Linear Park and Bunny Moor are good sites. 17th April.
Small Skipper A scarce insect locally in my experience, although it is described as a common butterfly of grasslands. The only suspect I've found at Keyworth Meadow proved to be Essex Skipper on close inspection. 6th June.
Small Tortoiseshell One of the earliest butterflies to emerge, having hibernated as an adult insect and still fairly common here. Regular almost anywhere around Keyworth though numbers may be declining. In the south of England it has undergone a dramatic crash in numbers. 8th January.
Small White Very common, but don’t assume every white insect of its size is a Small White – check out Green-veined White and female Orange-tip. With practice and perseverance, the flight of these species becomes distinctive; this species is often noticeably a little larger than the others and its flight is less 'fluttery' and more direct though it can still be like Green-veined at times. Orange-tip is very distinctive if more than just a fleeting glimpse is made as it is far and away the most 'fluttery', with changes in direction every second of so. It has been described as 'flickering'. 27th February.
Speckled Wood Once unheard of in Notts, this is another species that has expanded its range northwards and recently made it to Scotland. It is now a very common butterfly which always likes to be near some shade where its dappled colours seem perfectly matched. 26th January.
Wall Since the 1980's, this once common butterfly has declined and is now as good as extinct in Notts. They still occur around the British coasts and in some Derbyshire dales, but any sightings in Rushcliffe now should be carefully checked. The last I saw in Nottinghamshire was in my garden in 1999.
White-letter Hairstreak Another hairstreak and typically elusive. They occur in Old Wood and on the edge of Bunny Park and some experts say they are much more common than generally believed but once again they spend much of their time high in the canopy of their host species, the elm. Try looking for the well camouflaged larvae in May. 11th June.