Hit and miss hairstreaks

The footpath into Hadleigh Country Park at the end of St Mary’s Road descends steeply into scrubby woodland. The path meets a wide grass ride that runs east through an avenue of elms. On a hot day in the late afternoon, the white-letter hairstreaks descend to nectar on the abundant bramble that remains in the sun. At this particular time, these local and easily overlooked butterflies are as common as the skippers and meadow browns; normally they are absent but aloft feeding on honeydew, only visible as small dashing silhouettes high in the canopy of the elms.

A few days later, we search for black hairstreaks along the various sections of blackthorn scrub at Ditchling Common knowing that their three week flight period is almost certainly over given that the season has been so advanced. Meadow browns are plentiful again; the butterfly equivalent of woodpigeons always catch the eye but lead nowhere. There are tantalising glimpses of distant purple hairstreaks and white admirals on some of the many fine English oaks. A pair of bullfinches briefly brightens the day, buzzards circle high overhead and silver-washed fritillaries dash through the rides. The unremitting sun turns a warm morning into an uncomfortably hot day. Next year will be different.

The large meadow on the western side of the common has abundant sweet vernal grass Anthoxanthum odoratum and spattered by the bright yellow of dyer’s greenweed Genista tinctoria; an indicator of an unimproved meadow and traditionally used as a fast, lemon yellow dye. Betony Stachys officinalis is also present amongst the swathe of bracken in the meadow above the pond. The common is a common probably because of the poor quality of the acid soils.

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