Danny Beath: Shropshire Photography

PUBLISHED: 17:12 01 December 2010 | UPDATED: 16:01 20 February 2013

Adonis Blue

Adonis Blue

Award-winning Shrewsbury-based photographer Danny Beath specialises in wild flora and insects and fine art landscapes. He takes us on a pictorial guide of the county's rare and beautiful summer visitors.

Award-winning Shrewsbury-based photographer Danny Beath specialises in wild flora and insects and fine art landscapes. He takes us on a pictorial guide of the county's rare and beautiful summer visitors.

The fair county of Shropshire is full of secret corners containing rare butterflies you would not expect to see here. These special places are scattered far and wide across the county and most are easily accessed by bus and car.

To see these butterflies you need to time your visit to coincide with the exact flight period of these elusive little insects and then you need a degree of field craft and animal patience to see them in action. If you are prepared to stand and stare, when others are rushing about, these magical creatures will emerge before your eyes.

Green hairstreak
These rather curious little butterflies are most easily found in limestone grassland habitats scattered around Shropshire. They are present in good numbers in some of the old quarries around the county like Patten's Rock quarry in Benthall Edge woods in Ironbridge Gorge or up near the Welsh border at Llanymynech rocks. The best time to see them is mid May and they are extremely difficult to spot in the field as they look like little grey moths on the wing and of course they blend in perfectly with any leaves they land on, Once seen, they are like tiny emeralds in the grass and are fairly easily approached.

Wood whites
These enchanting little creatures are found in a few sites in south Shropshire but they are best seen in and around the car park and forest trails at Bury Ditches in south Shropshire. The best time to go is around the end of June to mid July. They are one of the easiest species to approach and on cooler, overcast days they can be almost finger tame. This is the only place in Shropshire to find them reliably and they are a national rarity. You can distinguish the males from the females by the tiny white patches on the male antennae tips. If you find a courting pair, observe carefully as the males chase the females on plant stems. The males tap the female hind wings with their antennae and the female often gives a rapid wing flick in response.

Silver studded blues
There is only one place in the county where you can see this nationally scarce butterfly and it is in the newly procured nature reserve at Prees Heath, near Whitchurch in north Shropshire. Peak activity is during mid June to early July most years, when you will see hundreds of individuals on the wing above the small patches heather on the heath. These little blue butterflies live in association with a particular ant species only found on this type of heath habitat. The adults lay their eggs on the heather and soon after hatching out the tiny larvae attract the local ant with sugary excretions from their bodies. The ants then take most of these larvae down into their nest, where they continue to develop, feeding on the other ant larvae in the process. Eventually the butterfly larvae pupate underground and stay there until the following summer. The adults emerge from their underground pupae on early summer mornings and they are escorted out of the nest by the host ants before their wings expand. The ants protect the newly emerged butterflies until they are ready to fly off.

Purple hairstreak
This is a fairly common and widespread species living its life entirely around the tops of oak trees, where it breeds. They are often seen as distant triangular black shapes flitting restlessly around the tops of tall oak trees and it is difficult to get a close up view of them. On rare occasions you may see them on the ground feeding on carrion or dung! However, there is one place in north Shropshire, on top of the cliff near Ruyton XI Towns, where they can be found almost at eye level on some dwarf scrub oaks. I have seen them on a few special master trees on hot summer evenings in mid July, basking in the sun. These individuals are actually fairly tame and will allow a close approach if you are careful. This is another species where I have had tame individuals feeding off the salts on my finger tips!

White admiral
A very rare and elusive insect found only in old growth forests with a plentiful supply of honeysuckle, its larval food plant. I have seen this dramatic butterfly occasionally in the Wyre forest, but the best place by far to see it is near Bridgnorth in a small forest remnant near Quatford. Here, during the summer heat of mid July, you can observe up to half a dozen individuals at a time gliding gracefully up and down the forest glades. Like the silver washed fritillaries, these butterflies are often seen nectaring on bramble blossom. They have a distinctive and graceful gliding flight, where they seem to float and turn effortlessly through the undergrowth. An amazing bug to watch

Silver washed fritillary
A spectacular and large orange coloured butterfly that is best seen in the Wyre forest flying up and down the woodland rides and track-ways. They are often seen feeding voraciously on bramble flowers, which is the best place to get a closer view of them. These butterflies like most fritillary species need violets for the larvae and are an indicator of healthy mature forest. This species has an amazing courtship flight display where the females power along on a straight line, with the chasing male in attendance doing backwards loop-the-loop manoeuvres around the female! To see a pair of fritillaries doing this astonishing acrobatics on a woodland ride is one of the most stunning wildlife sights you are likely to see in Shropshire.

Clouded yellow
A scarce migrant from southern Europe that is only seen in hot summers and is an unmistakable butter yellow in colour. These insects fly up as far as northern England in hot summers and have been seen occasionally in Shropshire. I saw one in Rea Brook in Shrewsbury during July 2006. They have also been seen on Prees Heath in recent years.

Adonis blue
I found a single male individual of this stunningly beautiful blue feeding on flowers at Venus Pool nature reserve near Shrewsbury last summer. This species is normally restricted to the chalk downlands of southern England, so it is very unusual to see them in Shropshire. There were several reports of this species at Venus Pool last year and this may indicate that this species has started breeding there.

Hummingbird hawkmoth
In hot summers there is a spectacular hawkmoth that is often seen in Shropshire from mid July to August. This is the hummingbird hawkmoth which migrates up from southern Europe and is most commonly seen feeding on red valerian flowers, its favourite nectar plant. The best places to see it are high up on hilltop habitats and even gardens, wherever red valerian grows. The last time I saw one in the county was during that hot July of 2006.

With global warming there are going to be some changes in the butterfly population of Shropshire, with the prospect of more southern species like the Clouded yellow and Adonis blue getting more common here and more exotic species from Europe turning up, like the Hummingbird hawkmoth. Conversely, if we continue to use too many harmful chemicals in our gardens and countryside we may lose several species very soon. Particularly after the stress of the last two catastrophic summers for butterflies, there are several species that are possibly extinct now in Shropshire, including the Chequered skipper, Pearl bordered fritillary, Brown argos and Wall brown. It is up to us to try and prevent any more local extinctions and to encourage habitats for these delightful harbingers of summer.

You can see more of Danny Beath's photography at www.smilingleafimages.co.uk

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