Beautiful blues

The south of England is famous for its chalk downland, and provides a unique habitat for one of our rarest butterflies - a butterfly that is so handsome it's named after the Greek god who stole Aphrodite's heart: the Adonis blue. In recent years, owing to changes in the way land is managed, the Adonis blue butterfly has been in serious decline. At Malling Down in Sussex, the habitat is just perfect for these extremely fussy insects. They need warm, dry slopes, coupled with grass that's between 1 and 4cm long. The larvae feed only on the horseshoe vetch plant, which also grows only on the chalk. The Adonis caterpillar also has a very special relationship with ants. The caterpillar emits a honey-like liquid which the ants feed on, and in return the ants look after the caterpillar, protecting it from predators and parasites. The need for such a special set of conditions make the Adonis blue particularly vulnerable to habitat loss. In this particular area they have cut back the scrub and ash woodland which allows more sunlight on to the grssy slopes which in turn helps to make them warmer. They have also bought in Herdwick sheep, which are particularly keen on browsing on the woody vegetaion like hawthorn, and help to prevent the scrub from regrowing - exactly what the Adonis blue needs. The male butterflies are a stunning, irridescent blue with a white fringe around the edge of the wings. In May, these males are not just looking for food, they are also on the lookout for females. Females are completely different in appearance and emerge a few days after the male, releasing pheromones and often mating within the first few minutes of adult life.

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