Browns (Family Nymphalidae)

Descriptions & images of the 8 species of Browns resident in Hampshire.

The 'Browns' also belong to the family Nymphalidae (but a different sub-family to the Vanessids and Fritillaries) having followed similar evolutionary paths resulting in the front pair of legs becoming dysfunctional, brush-like appendages. The common name of 'Browns' indicates the predominant colour of these butterflies with some exceptions, such as the Marbled White!  Despite the predominantly brown colouring, the group not only contains some interesting species but includes representatives which are widespread and common to one which is now very scarce in Hampshire.

Occurrence (distribution based on 1km squares) and abundance (total population) trend data, extracted from the report "The State Of The UK's Butterflies 2015" published by Butterfly Conservation, is shown for each species and indicates the change in distribution and population during the last four decades (1976 - 2014) at UK national level. 

Gatekeeper - Pyronia tithonus

Wingspan: ~37-47mm

 1976 - 2014 Distribution change: +57%, 1976 - 2014 Population change: +150%

 

The Gatekeeper's former name of Hedge Brown indicates correctly that the butterfly is likely to be encountered along hedgerows, but it is also common in other areas where there are plenty of shrubs, including many woodland rides. Whilst it has been able to extend its range northwards, its overall UK abundance has decreased markedly in the last decades and continues to do so. Nevertheless it is still widespread and quite common in Hampshire in the appropriate habitats. As shown in the photos above, the female lacks the dark patch of scent scales on the forewing. The larvae feed on various grasses.

When to see: The flight period starts in early July through until late August.

Where to see: The butterfly is likely to be encountered anywhere which meets its habitat requirements, from country lanes with hedgerows to woodland (e.g. New Forest, Bentley Wood, Noar Hill).

Grayling - Hipparchia semele

Wingspan: ~50-62mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -62%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -58% 

The Grayling always settles with wings closed.

 

The Grayling is a species mainly associated with dry coastal heaths and dunes and has declined from many of its former inland heath sites and in its overall abundance. In Hampshire, it is found on dry heaths in the New Forest, several heathland areas in the north of the county, as well as on a few coastal heaths. One would be forgiven for thinking that one of the main needs of the adult butterflies is to remain invisible. They often fly only when disturbed, seeming to fly a few yards, settle again with closed wings, and disappear, the underside colouring providing almost perfect camouflage. The only time the adults display open wings (except in flight) is during courtship when the female will settle with splayed wings - a rare sight indeed. 

When to see: The flight period is from early/mid-July and lasts until early September, with the coastal colonies generally being the first to emerge.

Where to see: In the New Forest, heathland sites such as Beaulieu Heath are normally reliable. In North Hampshire Hazeley Heath is one of several locations for the species. A good coastal site is Browndown (South and North) with Browndown (South) often recording the earliest Graylings to emerge in Hampshire.

Marbled White - Melanargia galathea

Wingspan: ~52-58mm 

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: +29%, Population change 1976 - 2014: +50% 

 

The Marbled White, despite its name, is a member of the Browns and is widespread in Southern England. It is found on rough grassland, hillsides and meadows where it can be abundant, and can also be encountered in woodland clearings. It has a slow, flapping flight close to the ground. The females are slightly larger than the males and the marbling on their undersides is brownish in colour. The larvae feed on various grasses.

When to see: The flight period is usually from mid-June through until mid-August.

Where to see: The butterfly will usually be found in greater or lesser numbers in suitable habitat. Good sites include Magdalen Hill Down, Yew Hill and Pitt Down.

Meadow Brown - Maniola jurtina

Wingspan: ~ 40-60mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -3%, Population change 1976 - 2014: +1% 

 

The Meadow Brown is one of our most successful species and, not surprisingly, also one of the commonest and most widespread. It is essentially a butterfly of open grasslands and meadows, but can also thrive in scrub, woodland rides, parks and even cemeteries. It is also well adapted to our climate, and can be seen on the wing in cloudy conditions and even light rain. The female butterfly has light brown splashes on the forewings, whereas the male is a more uniform chocolate brown but retains the dark eye spot in the forewing. The larvae feed on various grasses including annual meadow grass.

When to see: There is only one generation per year, but the flight period is long from early June until early September.

Where to see: The species is so widespread that it will be found anywhere meeting its loose habitat requirements. Noar Hill and Bentley Wood provide good examples of grassland/scrub and woodland locations respectively for this species.

Ringlet - Aphantopus hyperantus

Wingspan: ~42-52mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: +63%, Population change 1976 - 2014:+381% 

The male and female Ringlet are similar in appearance.

 

The Ringlet is usually found in or close to woodland, such as along grassy rides and in clearings, but also along hedgerows and in meadows of long grasses, especially where there are brambles close by. It is one of few species which has both expanded its range northwards in the UK and also increased its population significantly in the last decades. It is widespread and quite common in Hampshire. The Ringlet can be confused with the Meadow Brown but has distinctive ringed spots on its underside wings. The larvae feed on various grasses.

When to see: The Ringlet has one generation each year, the flight period typically lasting from mid-June until mid-August.

Where to see: The Ringlet can be found in many of Hampshire's deciduous and mixed woodlands including the New Forest. Specific sites include Alice Holt Forest (Straits Inclosure), Whiteley Pastures and Bentley Wood, where it can be abundant.

Small Heath - Coenonympha pamphilus

Wingspan: ~32-37mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -57%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -54% 

The male and female Small Heath are similar in appearance and always settle with wings closed.

 

The Small Heath is still a widespread species in UK, and also in Hampshire, although it has suffered significant declines due to intensive agricultural practices in the last decades. It prefers dry grassland habitats, but can be found also on heathland and coastal dunes, where there are fine grasses on which the larvae feed. The flight is low and fluttering with the butterflies rarely flying more than a few yards and always resting with closed wings, as in the photo.

When to see: There are two generations per year, the first emerging around mid-May, the second in early August, the flight periods typically lasting about 6 weeks.

Where to see: The butterfly will usually be found in suitable habitat but often only in modest numbers. Magdalen Hill Down, Old Winchester Hill and Stockbridge Down are decent sites. In the New Forest I have encountered it on Beaulieu Heath, but expect there will be many other Forest heathland locations.

Speckled Wood - Parage aegeria

Wingspan: ~46-56mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: +71%, Population change 1976 - 2014: +84% 

The male and female Speckled Wood are similar in appearance.

 

The Speckled Wood is essentially a woodland species which is increasing its range and population, filling in former gaps in Northern and Eastern England. It has evolved an unusual survival strategy, in that it can over-winter either as a larva or pupa and as a result, can be seen in almost any month from April through to October. The Speckled Wood favours more shady conditions than many other woodland species and will be found in glades in which the sun's rays filter through the trees, where it will bask on leaves or the ground. The adults also feed on aphid honeydew high up in the trees and take nectar from flowers such as brambles. The larval foodplants are mainly coarse grasses such as cock's foot.

When to see: As indicated above the butterfly can be seen in any month between April and October, but is most numerous during August and early September.

Where to see: The butterfly can be found in many shady woodland areas and is widespread in the New Forest. Specific Hampshire sites include Alice Holt Forest (Straits Inclosure) and Bentley Wood.

Wall - Lasiommata megera

Wingspan; ~ 45-55mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -77%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -87% 

 

The Wall is arguably the most attractively marked of the Browns, but its status, especially in SE England and the Midlands has suffered dramatically in the last decades, having disappeared from or become very scarce in large swathes of inland terrain. Its rapid decline, which is not so marked in the north, is not fully understood, although habitat loss and climate change are likely factors.  In southern England. it is now largely confined to a few coastal locations and scattered small colonies on chalk grassland/downland. The butterfly favours dry, open grassland with plenty of bare areas, such as paths and walls on which to bask (hence the name), and a good supply of wildflowers for nectar. The larvae feed on various grasses.

When to see: There are two main generations a year, each lasting just over one month, from early May and again from mid or late July. There is almost always a small third generation in late September/early October.

Where to see: The Wall has almost certainly become Hampshire's rarest indigenous species. The survival of the last known breeding colony, on the Lymington-Keyhaven nature reserve, hangs by a thread, with no more than odd isolated individuals being recorded in recent seasons. Nevertheless, a few Walls are reported each year from different locations around the county, mainly along Hampshire's coastal strip, where colonies previously existed and in the NW of the county close to the Wiltshire border. These are possibly wanderers from known colonies in adjacent counties, or perhaps the Isle of Wight. The most likely area to find the species in Hampshire is currently around Shipton Bellinger and the Perham Ranges, where a few sightings are reported each year. This is hopefully indicative of a small breeding population in that area, which is located close to Wiltshire's Salisbury Plain, where there are several known colonies.

© Copyright Alan Thornbury's Hampshire Butterflies 2020