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Butterflies: meadow browns and gatekeepers

by Richard Jones

Although markedly different in size from the meadow brown, it's sometimes difficult to identify a gatekeeper, especially in a photograph.

two gatekeeper butterflies matingWe have a tiny patch of long grass in our garden, less than a couple of square metres. It's mostly the exceedingly common Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus) and false oat (Arrhenatherum elatius). Nevertheless, it's attracting several butterflies.

Meadow brown (Maniola jurtina) and speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) were first, and this past weekend saw the arrival of several pairs of gatekeepers (Pyronia tithonus). Even as I write, there are some fluttering around the marjoram, globe thistle and fennel just outside the kitchen door.

Although markedly different in size from the meadow brown, it's sometimes difficult to identify a gatekeeper, especially in a photograph. However, it has a clear distinguishing mark. In the black eye blob on the front wings (upper and lower sides), the meadow brown has a single white spot, but the gatekeeper has two. You can't see them in the photo above, because the butterflies have adopted their 'secure' resting position, with front wings tucked behind the camouflaged hind wings. If disturbed they'll flick up the front-wing eye spots in an attempt to startle a would-be predator, before taking flight as a final resort.

The gatekeeper is a very common butterfly, but I hardly ever saw it when I lived in Nunhead, just a mile from where I am now. The reason, I'm sure, is that it truly lives up to its other English name - hedge brown. The gardens in East Dulwich are larger than those in Nunhead, and the fences are more likely to be overgrown by creepers and climbers, making them appear more hedge-like. Maybe the gatekeeper caterpillars, which feed on grasses like other brown butterflies, prefer a more shaded aspect to feed in.

Or it may simply be that gatekeepers spend more of their time perching up high, on the edge of meadows, while the meadow browns prefer fluttering across swathes of long grass.

Whatever the reason, they're very obvious in the garden this week, because they're mating and they spend many minutes, or even hours, 'in copula'. One pair sat on the door jamb of the French windows for ages as a constant traffic of observing children trooped past.

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Gardeners' World Web User 28/11/2011 at 18:36

Help! Found on our weeping pussy willow August 16th, 24 large caterpillars with black and yellow stripes running the length of their body. Munched their way through almost all of the growth on a very young and healthy tree. They became quite agressive when we picked them off and took them onto some nettles well away from the garden. What are they please?