Bovey Beauties

“They flutter erratically through our lives like stray but familiar thoughts” Miriam Rothschild

Everyone recognises a butterfly – the adult form of the Lepidoptera order of insects, the most iconic of our flying insects.  A flight, a rabble or a rainbow of butterflies – all collective nouns for butterflies – will bring an image to everyone’s minds. A rabble of speckled wood butterflies, perfectly demonstrates their male territorial behaviour in the woodland glades.

Speckled wood butterfly
Speckled wood butterfly (Photo: Butterfly Conservation)

But where does the name ‘butterfly’ come from? Some say it’s a rearrangement of words (a metathesis) of the colloquial name for butterflies ‘flutter-by’. However ‘butterfleoge’ was used in Anglo Saxon times so this seems unlikely. Associations with butter come from Eastern Europe where historically butterflies have been noted to gather around open tubs of milk/butter, maybe attracted by pheromones, but this has never been reported in the UK.

Michal Chinery, author of Insects of  Britain and Western Europe,  believes it may be a corruption of  ‘beauty flies’, which sounds more feasible because of their wide range of colours. People tend to recognise more butterflies than any of our other winged insect orders, despite individual adults being on the wing for just two to three weeks. From now, well into the autumn, adults can be seen in flight and repeat walks are often valuable to observe which butterfly species are present in an area.

Illustration of a brimstone butterfly settling on bluebell flowers (by Kim Bartlett)

Over the last couple of years, as part of the Moor than meets the eye scheme, a team have been working on a special project to help visitors learn more about not only the butterflies, but the diversity of wildlife that can be found in and around East Dartmoor NNR. They have developed a series of wildlife walks leaflets, each with different circular walks following the woodland tracks and paths around East Dartmoor’s diverse habitats. The butterfly walk starts on the edge of Trendlebere Down, (starting at the Middle Trendlebere car park), then drops down into the wooded Bovey Valley, before entering the sunny woodland glades alongside the river Bovey. Designed in the style of a naturalist’s sketchbook, they feature beautiful hand drawn illustrations by local artist, Kim Bartlett, that celebrate the beauty of East Dartmoor’s wildlife. You can download a copy of the Butterflies of the Bovey Valley leaflet here.

Illustration of an orange tip (by Kim Bartlett)

During the coming weeks there are a number of butterflies that may be seen in the valley, some are relatively common but never the less beautiful, and some are more specialists. This walk along the Bovey Valley will take a leisurely two hours, if you are stopping to identify and watch the antics of butterflies along the way, and as butterflies are most active in sunny conditions, or where the temperature is over 16 degrees, you can improve the chance of butterfly sightings by picking a warm day to walk.

Here are a selection of the butterflies to look out for in the next few weeks:

Orange-tip Only males have bright orange wing tips, but both sexes can be distinguished from other whites by the green patterned underwings. This is a perfect camouflage when nectaring on, and laying their eggs on, cuckoo pint and garlic mustard plants. 

Holly blue These dancing dots of blue are sometimes called wood blues. They are distinguished from common blues – that are not so common – by the blue colour of the underside wings. They have 2 broods so re-appear in high summer, the latter brood using ivy, in preference to holly, as a food plant.    

Holly blue butterfly
Holly blue (photo: Butterfly Conservation)

Brimstone The dazzling colour of the males gives these butterflies their name. They can be seen all year in the right conditions and lay their eggs on alder and alder buckthorn leaves at this time of the year.  Unusually for butterflies they do not rest with open wings. There is also a Brimstone moth, much smaller than its butterfly relative, but still a dazzling lemon yellow that sometimes may be disturbed on their food plants during the day from now till until early autumn.

Brimstone butterfly (Photo: NE/Allan Drewitt)

Pearl-bordered fritillaries first emerge in April and are currently flying on the reserve. A small detour off the butterfly walk into Trendlebere Combe (from the Old Manaton Road) can often find them on the bracken-covered slopes above the footpath. Alternatively, they can be found on the slopes above and below the entrance track, to Yarner Wood.

Pearl bordered fritillary (Photo: Butterfly Conservation)

Small pearl-bordered fritillary were historically know as ‘May fritillaries’ and have already been sighted on the western fringes of Dartmoor. When both species are flying at the same time they are hard to tell apart.   

Small pearl bordered fritillary (Photo: Butterfly Conservation)

So do get down to East Dartmoor NNR in May and enjoy our butterfly walk. We are always interested in your sightings! The complete series of wildlife walk leaflets are available to pick up at the Yarner Wood Office and in the Reservoir Bird Hide near the starting point of the walk. You can download a copy of the butterfly walk on the walking routes page of the blog (the complete set will be available to download shortly). These leaflets have been produced as part of the Heritage Lottery funded Moor than meets the eye scheme

Blog written by Linda Corkerton, Training  Supervisor, Natural England/Moor than meet the eye EcoSkills Project

  • References:
  • Bugs Britannia. Author: Peter Marran/ Richard Mabey
  • Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Author: Richard Lewington 2003
  • Insects of Britain and Western Europe. Author: Michael Chinery 2012
  • Field Guide to the Moths of GB and Ireland. Authors: Paul Waring and Martin Townsend 2003

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