Foodplants for Butterflies and Moths

What would you think about if I asked you for good foodplants for butterflies and moths? Buddleja? Verbena bonariensis? Hebe?
It’s true – they’re all great nectaring plants, and non-native to the UK. So why should I bother with native plants if I want to encourage butterflies and moths?

Well, many native plants are very good sources of nectar, of course. Hemp agrimony, knapweed, honeysuckle, wild marjoram and field scabious spring immediately to mind. These are all attractive and in some cases long flowering wildflowers. As nectar plants are they as good as the ornamentals? It’s a far from straightforward question and not my topic here!

Celastrina argiolus
Holly Blue on Holly leaf
Where native plants incontrovertibly DO win is as foodplants for caterpillars. British caterpillars, by and large, need British plants to munch. This can, of course, extend to cultivars, which explains why cabbages are regularly written off. There are exceptions too; I offer up nasturtiums (from South America) in my veg patch as a sacrifice to happy Small White caterpillars.*

At this point gardeners say they have a nettle patch for caterpillars. Well yes – good foodplant but not enough on their own. Atropos Publishing has a good guide which shows which species of butterfly and larger moth depend on which foodplant. Urtica – nettles – have 35 associated caterpillars. It highlights the difference between imported plants and native. Buddleja are a good example; the book lists only 3. This is very different to a native plant – field scabious has 14.

Grasses too are good larval foodplants, which is one of the reasons why we encourage people to sow meadow mixes rather than just wildflowers. Cocksfoot, for example (although not ideal for a meadow), comes in as supporting 35 different types of caterpillar.

Trees and hedge species are even better. Sometimes they have almost exclusive or totally exclusive relationships with individual plants. I think of Yellow Brimstones and Buckthorn, Purple Emperors and Oak, Brown Hairstreak and Blackthorn. The king of all our plants is the Oak; according to the book, both oaks support over 120 types of moth and butterfly caterpillars. It’s said an oak tree will lose around half its leaves to insects in an average year.

Which are the top five foodplants? They’re all native trees or shrubs:
English and Sessile oaks (Q. robur and petraea)
Willows (Salix spp.)
Birches (Betula spp.)
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.)
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

*and thence happy blue tits etc.etc.

We Are 10!

Amazingly, Habitat Aid is 10 years old. It started off as what now looks like a lunatic plunge into the unknown. I’d had 30+years in the City and needed another career. I was a keen but strictly amateur naturalist and gardener/smallholder. I think people thought I was having a midlife crisis (probably) or that I’d made so much money it didn’t matter (weak laughter). We downsized dramatically. To the surprise of most the business has kept food on the table and, more importantly, done some good things. Anyway, our tenth anniversary has given me an excellent opportunity to go off on one…

Native planting
Hedge and copse scheme, Cambridgeshire
I wish I’d kept tabs on what we’ve given away to charities and community projects, how many acres of wildflower meadows or orchards we’ve had a hand in, or seed packets, or numbers of ponds, or miles of hedges. Wildflower meadows are now particularly dear to my heart. Largely unprotected, almost completely destroyed, our most diverse and attractive habitat. I think the biggest meadow site we’ve seeded is over a hundred acres. Wildly exciting.

Plan Bee seedsMost aspects of what we do have been very satisfying, not least helping our network of suppliers, many of whom have been with us since we started. We have made some modest progress in changing minds, like promoting local provenance meadow seed, for example. People have been very supportive, from David Attenborough to an appreciative pupil from a Primary school in County Durham (thank you for the letter, Lucy). Thanks everyone, not least my long suffering wife!

Wildflower meadow
Meadow Creation Project, North Somerset
This keeps me going; sometimes, as you can imagine, it can be difficult. I do wish we were having a wider impact. The business is still pretty modest, and we find it difficult to be heard. Projects are complicated and can go wrong (don’t tell!). People don’t pay much for plants and seed, and can find them baffling. Selling online seems to
Our social media efforts are improving!
be more and more difficult for small companies who don’t want to use Amazon. Social media audiences follow enthusiastic and luminous personalities. Folk have odd ideas. Things get weird very quickly. TBH I’m hopeless at it. One of the reasons we set up Habitat Aid was to get across sound information on how to try and improve our natural environment. Worthy but dull on Facebook. Hopeless.

Although we know more about what’s happening in our own back garden than we did 10 years ago, it’s still remarkably little. Some of the charities we support are working hard to change that, but we’re still blundering around in – at best – the twilight. Our understanding of what we’re doing to the natural environment here remains depressingly sketchy.

The conservation lobby is often at loggerheads with other interest groups. I’m delighted to see a new activism abroad, like the recent People’s Walk for Wildlife and various online petitions. I’m uncomfortable though about the confrontational element of some of this stuff, and the over-simplification and sensationalising (is that a word?) of complicated real world issues. For example, banning neonicotinoids on its own isn’t going to “save our bees”. Don’t get me wrong. I think banning them is a very good thing and was very overdue – but bees have other problems too. We continue to find out how many. We’re also finding out how many other impacts neonics have too. In the meantime farmers are flooding their oilseed rape fields with pyrethroid based pesticides instead. Specialist evidence based conservation charities really struggle to put across complicated messages without compromising them.”Personalities” or campaigning groups often eclipse them, too.

NGOs are, however, getting better at persuading people that wildlife friendly can also be people friendly. Most are also engaging better with the real world, although there are a couple of ivory towers out there which need to be bazooka-ed. It must be a concern to them, however, that their supporters continue to be overwhelmingly white middle class folk of a certain age, from outside urban areas. It’s a symptom of “nature deficit disorder”, I guess. There’s also shifting baseline syndrome to fight among the younger generation.

Lastly there’s the commercial sector. Retailers sell lots of THINGS to try replace degraded habitat. Bee boxes, bird boxes, hedgehog boxes, bat boxes, dormice boxes, hibernacula, bird feeders, even bumblebee colonies.* This all just widens people’s disconnectedness with nature. Together with the over-simplification of key messages they are encouraged to think that nature is easily and cheaply replaceable. They’re not looking at it either. Our efforts to get people to take pleasure in the small things – a new butterfly in the garden, a new plant in the meadow – generally fall on deaf ears. I still run into far too much greenwash in the corporate sector at large. Perhaps naively I think this is often down to ignorance.

I’ve become increasingly suspicious of government, although encouraged by the Blue Planet effect. This means that – for the first time ever – the environment will win votes. Best of all, it might win votes among the under 25s. This realisation just might drive a good environmental deal post Brexit, although as this will mean short term cost and higher food prices the jury is still firmly out. At the least, we should get improved biosecurity and wave goodbye to the Common Agricultural Policy.

Rainbow over Alfred's TowerThis is apparently my 362nd blog. There does now seem to be a wider understanding that something is needed to reverse what Chris Packham calls an “ecological apocalypse” here. There are more active efforts being made to that end, like rewilding. Much hasn’t changed over the previous 361 blogs, though. We still worry about animals like hedgehogs much more than we do about the drivers behind their decline. These are common to many, many other species. Biodiversity loss is still the Cinderella of the Green movement, which is much more concerned about energy and sustainability. We still spend peanuts on it, least of all on the poor souls slaving away in this area – or in horticulture generally, come to that.

I’m still convinced that the way to improve biodiversity here is by recreating and rejoining (as best we can) destroyed and splintered natural habitats. This not only means huge changes to the way we use and value land here, but also getting people to see the benefits of habitat creation. It can be beautiful and wildly exciting (sorry! – Ed.).

*Plants and seed sellers often pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap. “Wildflower seed” in particular could be anything from anywhere and often fails. Retailers seem to sometimes actively encourage people’s confusion; between actual and other sorts of “meadows”, and the provenance of plants, for example.

Blackthorn

Blackthorn, Prunus spinosa, is a really lovely plant. You don’t tend to find it in towns, where its suckering tendency (it’s not great in lawns) and all round spinosa-ness make it unpopular, I guess. These characteristics make it a top stock proof hedge plant though, even if the thorns can make it painful to lay. They’re much more painful than Hawthorn spines and will go through any gauntlets, making cuts that often turn septic. Some folk I know don’t like Blackthorn in paddock hedges as they worry its thorns will damage their horses’ eyes.
BlackthornAs it’s part of the Prunus family it’s no surprise that it has fruit. The birds seem to like Blackthorn sloes, and so can we; sloe gin is a liquer, I suppose, rather than a true gin, but none the less tasty for it. The trick is to pick the sloes after they’ve been frosted, by the way.
Blackthorn is a plant rich in mythology, as all these old native species are. It was closely associated with Hawthorn, and both plants were said to have formed the crown of thorns. Witches’ wands were often made of it, apparently, although more practically Blackthorn wood is hard and traditionally used for walking sticks or cudgels. Its clear white blossom, appearing very early, had more positive connotations.
Blackthorn blossom provides a wonderful early forage for bees, which is why I prize it, as it appears nearly as early as the blossom of another (near!) native Prunus, Myrobalan. Beekeepers know that when the Blackthorn blossom is out they can stop worrying about their honeybees starving. It’s a wonderful wildlife plant all round; a safe refuge for birds and small mammals as well, and food plant for Hairstreak butterflies (among other lepidoptera), who lay their eggs on it. If for no other reason, this is why Blackthorn hedges should not be aggressively flailed.
Even in the most favourable conditions, left to its own devices it won’t grow to be a big tree – but I can almost guarantee you will be able to grow it. It’s as tough as old boots and will tolerate almost any soil or position, even half way up a mountain. It’s a shame Blackthorn isn’t planted as often in single species hedges as its better behaved sister, the ubiquitous Hawthorn.

Newsletter: November 2014

Barring the Yellow Rattle the seeding is all done for another year and we’re lining up all our hedge plant orders, to start delivery from next week.

The weather is finally turning autumnal, but I think the extended warm spell has done for my honeybees, who despite my best efforts look to have succumbed to a bunch of freebooting wasps. Oh well – time will tell.

Climate change was very much on the agenda at the Invertebrate Conservation Conference a couple of weeks ago. Distributions of butterflies and moths should persuade anyone that it’s getting warmer here and that habitat loss continues to wreak terrible damage to our invertebrate populations – and thence everything else.

Looking on the bright side though, there are some really good initiatives gathering momentum, characterized by co-ordination between various interested parties – keep an eye on B-Lines, for example, a Buglife led project which is now taking aim at London. Even HMG seems to have caught pollinator fever – in a modest way.

The business continues to truck along. 2014 will be another record year for us thanks to our business to business sales. We’re helping create a lot of valuable new habitat! We are redesigning our website to kickstart moribund retail sales, about which more anon. It should relaunch early next year.

iris-foetissimaLLearning to Garden

I’ve finally got around to doing the RHS Level 2 course, which has reminded me how little I know about almost everything. Last week I embarrassed myself by not recognizing Iris foetidissima. Now I know it I’ve added it to my cracking native plants for gardens list. One of many!

Ponds

Finally – FINALLY – the pond is starting to fill. We’ve even had some Chasers laying eggs in it, and the odd frog. I’ve popped some oxygenators in ahead of the winter; Starwort, Milfoil and Hornwort. The test will now be to see how clean the water is that will be running off into it; water quality is the key issue for ponds like this.

A Meadow in Winter

We had a visitor a couple of weeks ago who didn’t believe we had any meadow areas here. I can sympathize; in winter they look like closely mown lawns ( with a lot of “weeds” in! ). A lot of folk make the mistake of not keeping their meadows either grazed or cut close enough over the winter. It won’t harm the rosettes of the wildflowers and will encourage diversity.