Small tortoiseshell butterflies

Monday 3 June 2013, 16:36

Springwatch Guest Blog Springwatch Guest Blog

Guest blogger: Richard Fox, Butterfly Conservation.

The small tortoiseshell is one of the UK's most colourful butterflies. It is very familiar too, thanks to its close association with people. Small tortoiseshells hibernate in our buildings, breed in wayside and farmland nettle patches and then throng to our gardens to feed up on nectar before winter returns.

Small tortoiseshell Small tortoiseshell by Jim Asher

June is great for small tortoiseshell spotting. The butterflies that emerged from hibernation in the spring are coming to the end of their lives by early June having, hopefully, laid lots of eggs. Towards the end of the month, in the south at least, the next generation of small tortoiseshells are starting to fly.

Small tortoiseshell caterpillars Small tortoiseshell caterpillars by Peter Eeles

In addition, throughout the month, you can hunt for the caterpillars. They are easy to spot as they live in large groups, near the tops of stinging nettles and spin an untidy mess of silken webbing to provide protection from predators. Large, sunny nettle beds are preferred.

Small tortoiseshell on lavender Small tortoiseshell on lavender by Matt Berry

Although the small tortoiseshell remains widespread, its numbers have declined drastically (a 77% decline over the past 10 years). The cause is not fully understood, but everyone can help improve our knowledge by reporting sightings of Small Tortoiseshells in July and August, as part of the Big Butterfly Count.


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    Comment number 1.

    A question re jackdaws. These are really common here in Midlothian (as everywhere else) but I never use to see them at all as a child growing up in the area. I was wondering whether the fact that whereas back in the 60s and 70s every house had a coal fire with chimneys in regular use, nowadays everyone has central heating. Given the importance of nesting site availability in building up populations, could the abundance of now-unused chimney pots be the reason populations of this bird have exploded?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I watch Spring Watch every evening with my children Jake and Maisy and whilst watching last nights program about butterflies and chrysalises, Jake would like to know how you tell a male small tortoiseshell from a female? SO I said that I would ask for him.

    Many thanks, great show, Rob Hare.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Richard, thank you for the information. Rather than rooting them out, I have left a 'large sunny patch of stinging nettles' in my garden and instead am enjoying a glass of wine. Cheers and here's to the small tortoiseshell butterfly.


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