Silver-washed fritillary

Posted: Thursday 12 September 2013
by Richard Jones

Overgrown urban gardens take a while to attract new wildlife, so I wasn't expecting anything very surprising – maybe some hoverflies and harlequin ladybirds. How wrong I was.

Heygate Estate, London

A month ago I was invited to visit the Heygate Estate in South London’s Elephant and Castle. If you look at a map, Elephant is slap bang in the dead centre of the capital, in perhaps the most heavily concreted and tarmacked portion of the city. Dead centre is an apt description. The grim, empty, boarded-up blocks of flats have been vandalised, and graffiti covers every brick and concrete block within reach.

This was never much of a green oasis – close-mown amenity grass and overshadowing London plane trees do not a wildlife garden make. True, there were a few small garden ‘yard’ areas, but at the height of its human occupation, I doubt that much else lived there apart from squirrels and pigeons. Now, however, the place is deserted (although I think there is one lone tenant still hanging on), and there is a slightly surreal post-apocalyptic green haze across the pavements, as nature returns to claw back what was once her own.

The amenity grass has grown long and weedy, tall thistles punctuate the lawns, cracks between the flagstones sprout ragwort and fleabane, and the odd sprig of buddleia has already started to break open the concrete walls.

Generally, overgrown urban gardens take a while to attract new wildlife, especially those in inner-city heartlands like this, with little or no truly wild areas anywhere nearby. The estate had been fully closed for only a year, so I wasn't expecting to find anything very surprising – maybe a few common hoverflies and some harlequin ladybirds. How wrong I was.

I had been on site for less than five minutes, when almost the first insect to come bowling past at full tilt was… a silver-washed fritillary, Argynnis paphia. What?!

Anyone who records butterflies will know that, although this is the commonest of Britain’s fritillaries, it is still a relatively scarce species, usually restricted to old woodlands in south and west England, Wales and Ireland. This is not your typical London garden butterfly, even in Dulwich and Richmond, where small colonies hang on in the adjacent ancient woodlands.

What on Earth is one doing flapping across Deacon Way, London SE17? I am still at a loss to explain it. Despite a year or more of abandonment, Elephant and Castle offers no suitable breeding habitats for the silver-washed fritillary, and I can think of nowhere else close to hand either. My supposition is that this is a vagrant, possibly an adventurous female, setting off to try to colonise new areas. But wherever it has come from, that’s quite a trek, and quite a surprise turn-up in any London garden.

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oldchippy 12/09/2013 at 14:56

Hi Richard,there's plenty of green space's here in Ewell but not one Ladybird this year and not many coloured butterfly's ,lots of brown butterfly's in Nonsuch park in the long grass and biting fly's,where have they gone this year. Oldchippy.