The Brown Butterflies

One of the great joys of early summer is the buzz in the garden of wildlife everywhere going about its business, creating a wonderful feeling of a habitat brimming with life.  Birds and insects in particular are around in abundance now so the next few weeks could be a good time to become more familiar with some of the less obvious butterflies that may visit your garden.                 

Over the last couple of months we have welcomed the bright spring butterflies – the brimstone, small tortoiseshell, peacock and comma – and as the days have lengthened and warmed, red admiral may have appeared, common and holly blue, orange tip and the small, large and green veined whites.  Many observant gardeners will be familiar with these species as they are relatively easy to get to know – their distinctive bright colours make them straightforward to tell apart.  The peacock’s ‘eyes’, the orange tip’s orange tips and the tiny common blue’s sparkling azure wings with orange and black spots on the undersides – even the names of these butterflies help to make them relatively easy to identify.  Summer however brings the group generally known as the ‘Browns’, butterflies that many people have difficulty with, although like so much in life, familiarity and a little effort makes it all a lot easier.

The Browns belong to the Nymphalidae family, and have in common the fact that all of them lay their eggs on a variety of species of native grasses. Also in common are the facts that they have relatively short antennae and small eyespots of some sort on their wings.  The latter are thought to deter predatory birds which instinctively aim for the spots when attacking.  This strategy helps to keep the vulnerable part of the butterfly, the soft body, away from harm.  Many a butterfly is seen with a beak sized piece missing from a wing yet is still able to fly adequately, so this is clearly a sacrifice well worth making.

Most of the Browns are fond of knapweed as a nectar source although wild marjoram is excellent for gatekeepers.  This means that a small wildflower meadow in your garden is a huge advantage if you wish to see them in any quantity.  If you have an allotment, any surrounding grassy strips with wildflowers or long grass beneath hedges may act as a source of food for the adult insects and their larvae.   Sadly, these are butterflies that are not inclined to fly long distances, unlike the red admiral or painted lady, so in order to be around in your garden or allotment there needs to be a breeding population not too far away.  However, they do make those short hops from one suitable habitat to the next and there is every chance that they will crop up in your garden at some point if you have long grass, even if you have no knowledge of a nearby colony.  Even the marbled white (which should really be called the marbled brown) has been known to turn up in unexpected places.

You may come across six of the species within this group and the two most likely to be seen in a garden environment are the meadow brown and the gatekeeper.  However, speckled wood, ringlet and the afore-mentioned marbled white are all possible garden visitors.  Grayling and small heath are less likely unless you live close to their favourite habitats – coastal areas and heath land.  Sadly the wall brown, named after its habit of basking on warm sunny walls and rocks, has become much less common over the last thirty years although can still be seen in some countryside or seaside gardens.

All these butterflies have a similar life cycle.  They emerge in early summer from pupation having spent the winter as tiny caterpillars deep in the base of thick grasses: one good reason not to cut all your grass to within an inch of its life in the autumn!  This is a very important management point – if you have a meadow area or any grass that is left long through the summer, you no doubt already take in to account the cutting and raking necessary.  Never cutting to less than 5 cms will ensure that the tiny caterpillars of these and a few other butterfly species will be relatively safe over the winter.  As spring approaches the caterpillars slowly come out of their semi-torpid winter state and start to feed again on their chosen grasses.  They then pupate deep in the grass thatch before the adults emerge in all their pristine glory over the following few weeks.  Through the summer they will mate and lay their eggs, often without a great deal of care and attention!  Several of the species simply scatter their eggs in flight over areas where the grassy caterpillar food plants are abundant.  The caterpillars, with their distinctive forked tails (which help to camouflage them amongst the grasses), soon hatch and begin to feed but as autumn approaches they bed down until spring returns.

Amongst the commoner garden browns, identification is not too difficult once you ‘get your eye in’.  Seeing the butterfly with its wings open (though they are not always obliging) will certainly aid identification.  The gatekeeper is a good species with which to start as it is considerably smaller than the others and has more orange – a splash on all four wings – plus the eyespot on the forewing so characteristic of this group.  When seen briefly in flight the overall impression of this species is that it is a small brown and orange butterfly. The gatekeeper (also called hedge brown) enjoys wild marjoram blossom and also feeds on the nectar from bramble flowers.  The meadow brown is similar, but it is about the size of a small tortoiseshell butterfly and the upper forewing is merely flushed with orange.

Marbled white is unmistakeable, being largely very dark chocolate brown with small white patches, including beautiful brown and white scalloped edges to the wings.  This butterfly, if it visits your garden, will generally be seen feeding on knapweed if you have it.  Speckled wood (above) is also easy to recognise once you have seen it a few times.  It has a row of ‘eye spots’ along the lower wing edge as well as cream specks throughout the upper wings.  This butterfly is also rather territorial and may fly aggressively at you if you approach it!  A garden with some light shade is more likely to have speckled woods.

Of the last two likely contenders, the ringlet gives the impression of being rather dull until it is seen well.  Its rich, chocolate brown colouration is wonderful and each of the four wings, which are edged with the slenderest white border, has a double eyespot.  The wall is mainly orange with wide brown veining on the wings together with a range of spots.

Long grass and some nectar plants are all these lovely creatures require and once they are examined in depth, their subtle beauty becomes apparent.  No gaudy colours for this group; just enigmatic elegance!

Useful grasses for the Brown Butterflies

These butterflies lay their eggs on a range of native wild grasses – some species are very specific as to which grasses they use, whilst others are less fussy, sometimes dropping their eggs in flight.  The most useful species are false brome, cocksfoot, couch grass, common bent, Yorkshire fog and sheep’s fescue.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017