Shipton Bellinger’s Browns

6th August 2016

Shipton Bellinger, a village on the southeastern corner of Salisbury Plain is a well known site to see brown hairstreaks Thecla betulae. This is an August flying species that is always local and confined to discrete areas of southern England and south Wales. Ancient byways to the west of the village rise through fields of abandoned agriculture surrounded by overgrown thorn hedges, dashed and dotted with ash Fraxinus excelsior trees. In the early morning sun, holly blues Celastrina argiolus hang about the clumps of ivy Hedera helix near the village. Along the track, a red admiral Vanessa atalanta and speckled woods Pararge aegeria distract in the bramble-filled hedgerows.

Across a small field, a small group of hairstreak hunters are standing in front of a line of ash trees staring high into the branches. The browns are here and flying high, living up to their difficult reputation. One watcher explains that male browns feed high in the ash trees on the honeydew and that they only nectar on brambles and other flowering plants after rain has washed the honeydew away; also that the males are active in the early morning. The females with brilliant orange undersides will come down but they hatch later in the month and lay their eggs on the blackthorn Prunus spinosa after some time feeding and mating high in the ash trees.

The male browns flit in bursts around the tree tops, but one or two come down to sit on lower branches. Here they spread their wings and soak the morning sun. Some also fly down and then make a mad rush across the field corner to disappear into the high hedge. There are no females to be seen and a search in the hot mid-morning sunshine of favoured hedges that run along the county boundary is fruitless.

The hedge borders are full of bramble and wild parsnip Pastinaca sativa; the areas of chalk grassland decked with eyebright  Euphrasia sp., vetches, red bartsia Odontites versus, wild basil Clinopodium vulgare and knapweed Centaurea nigra. One common blue Polyommatus icarus is in the grassland. The walk back down the hill is easy going and uneventful.


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