Counting Butterflies at Sissinghurst

This summer, on Thursday 9th August, Sissinghurst Castle Garden took part in the Big Butterfly Count 2013 for the first time. The count is organised by Butterfly Conservation and the purpose is to give an overview of butterfly numbers in the UK and the density of species in different regions.

A Painted Lady on Verbena bonariensis
A Painted Lady on Verbena bonariensis

Taking part in the count seemed easy enough; all we had to do was walk around the garden for 15 minutes and mark down our butterfly sightings on an identification chart. The only small problem was that our butterfly identification skills were ‘patchy’ and we doubted our ability to distinguish between a Small White, a Large White, and a Green Veined Butterfly all of which were on the chart. Luckily, we knew a man who could! Pete, the Ranger was duly enlisted and accompanied me as I made the count, shouting out his sightings with much enthusiasm, especially when we saw a Brimstone. It was all exciting stuff; a Gatekeeper was spotted in the Moat Walk and the Top Courtyard and Lower Courtyard were awash with Peacock butterflies feeding on the buddlejas. We also saw a Comma, 2 Painted Ladies and a Red Admiral as well as at least 20 Small Whites and 10 Large Whites. Disappointingly, we didn’t see a Green Veined White but it was exciting to see a Brimstone and later on in the day after the count, I spotted a Silver-washed Fritillary which I had never seen before.

A Brimstone on a zinnia flower
A Brimstone on a Zinnia

Much has been written this summer about the decline of butterflies and moths and what we can do to help. We are all being encouraged to play our part, not just with butterflies and moths but with bees too, whose numbers are also rapidly declining. Although the garden at Sissinghurst is not specifically managed as a ‘wildlife’ garden, we are fortunate to be surrounded by the Sissinghurst Estate comprising
450 acres of conservation managed farmland and countryside. This provides the ideal breeding ground for butterflies and provides plenty of food for the caterpillars. All we have to do is grow plants with nectar rich flowers in order to attract the butterflies into the garden so that they can feed and mate. Yes, sometimes they do lay their eggs on the plants and this summer we had an infestation of Large White caterpillars that proceeded to gorge themselves on Crambe cordifolia. These were hastily evicted from the garden still feeding on a decimated leaf! But usually we do not find caterpillars to be too much of a problem.

A Silver-washed Fritillary
A Silver-washed Fritillary on Buddleja

The idea is to provide high nectar flowers in the garden throughout the whole season so that as butterflies emerge from hibernation or chrysalises there is food available right from the start. Plants such as wallflowers, honesty, aubrietia, primroses, foxgloves and lilac are all good choices for spring flowering, high nectar plants. As spring drifts into summer, the choice of plants expands even further to include lavender, eryngiums, cornflowers, echinops, valerian, phlox and of course, the favourite of butterflies; buddleja. Late summer flowers include asters, heleniums, sedums, scabious, Verbena bonariensis, salvias and eupatorium. In fact, there is a massive array of butterfly friendly plants and Butterfly Conservation give a list of one hundred on their website. Single flowers are better than doubles as they are often higher in nectar and are easier for butterflies and moths to access. Moths will be attracted to night-scented flowers such as nicotiana alata, night-scented stocks, honeysuckle, evening primrose and summer flowering jasmine so it’s good to plant some of these too if you can.

peacock butterfly
A Peacock on Buddleja

When planting a border, try to put the nectar-rich plants in a sunny, sheltered spot in your garden. Butterflies will always choose to feed in the sun, not only because it warms them up but also because they use the shadows on flowers to detect predators above them. Shelter is also important because windy conditions make it difficult for butterflies to feed and fly.

By making thoughtful choices in our gardens we can create beautiful and alluring places for both humans and butterflies and it’s important to remember that, like Sissinghurst, it’s not necessary to have a wild garden in order to attract wildlife. If we plant the right flowers then the butterflies will come…

Helen (Gardener)

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