Friday 22 May 2020

Strawberry Banks Forever 21st May 2020

Another day of glorious sunshine and a warm breeze put me in mind of butterflies and one in particular, the Marsh Fritillary. Boldly chequered with a combination of orange, buff and brown it is one of the most striking of our native fritillaries. Their size and general patterning can vary from colony to colony and numbers in the colonies can also vary tremendously from year to year. In a good year a colony can number in thousands, in other years be far less and colonies can die out for no apparent reason.

Like most fritillaries it is considered to be endangered and is now only found on reserves where its habitat requirements can be managed to ensure it survives. Although favouring damp grassland, contrary to its name it can also be found in woodland clearings and dry chalk and limestone grassland.

For me the nearest reserve to find this lovely colonial and scarce butterfly is Strawberry Banks in Gloucestershire, which is a very steep slope of limestone grassland comprised of two 'unimproved' fields, 5.06 hectares in extent which is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). Up to December 2018 it was managed by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust but has now reverted to the private landowners who thankfully are continuing to manage the site sympathetically, so the Marsh Fritillary's future here is assured. Mind you it is a difficult butterfly to cater for as it requires abundant Devils-bit Scabious (its natural foodplant) in habitat that has to be subject to low intensity grazing. At Strawberry Banks this is achieved by grazing horses and ponies on the reserve and work parties removing encroaching scrub in the winter months.

Strawberry Banks is so named because it was once used to grow strawberries and it is also a site where a German bomber crashed in the Second World War. There is now no trace of the wreckage although there may be a few ghosts lingering. It is a very beautiful location for a reserve, sited as it is on a very steep slope which forms one side of a valley lying below the attractive Cotswold village of Oakshot Lynch, four miles east of Stroud. The reserve forms part of a chain of nature reserves that run through an area called Stroud's Golden Valley 

I parked the car by the village green and walked down a steep path, passing through a field, over a stile and then through a small wood, emerging out into the sunshine and the reserve, following the path as it dropped down on one side of the reserve to the valley bottom. There are two tracks across the reserve and I followed the upper one looking for a Marsh Fritillary. 

Marsh Fritillaries are slow flying compared to other fritillaries and keep low to the ground, rarely moving more than a hundred metres from where they  emerge. It would, I hope, be easy to locate one and sure enough, fairly quickly I got a brief glimpse of one, fluttering just inches above the path but it flew off up the slope and in the heat of midday I was disinclined to follow. 

I walked onwards towards the far end of the second field where an area of Wood Spurge was growing at the edge of a wood and there I  got my first close view of a Marsh Fritillary. 

It was nectaring on the curious cup shaped flower heads of the Wood Spurge and I followed it around from plant to plant as it fed continuously, apart from occasional spats with a Peacock that seemed intent on claiming the flowers for itself. Matters settled down and  I contiued to follow the feeding fritillary around the flower heads as before. I soon had enough images of the obliging butterfly's upperwings and lovely though they are, it is always a view of the exquisite underwing pattern that excites and this proved a lot harder to achieve as the butterfly was disinclined to close its wings.

Marsh Fritillary nectaring on Wood Spurge
Growing weary of clambering up the very steep slope and having to brace myself  on the steep sides of the field while photographing the butterfly, I retreated and dropped down to the lower track. The heat of the day was becoming oppressive, the sun beating down in a white shimmering light from a sky of palest blue. Lower down there was no longer any breeze but I was enjoying myself making a reunion and communion with a butterfly I had not seen for a few years. 

Now I had 'my eye in' so to speak I was finding Marsh Fritllaries regularly and finally I got the opportunity to get some images of the underwing pattern as a couple of fritillaries obligingly closed their wings. 

Satisfied, I wandered the reserve again, just enjoying being here and once more retraced my steps on both the upper track and the lower track. I was mostly on my own for the couple of hours I was on the reserve. Tired, hot and thirsty but really pleased with my Marsh Fritillary experience I took the steep path back up the valley side to find my car. parked in the shade of an oak tree by the village green.

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