During Victorian times butterfly collecting was a popular hobby and the New Forest was the “home” of Victorian collectors with Pondhead the most famous of the old Forest collecting grounds because of the profusion of butterflies it contained. Unfortunately, as a result of various factors, butterfly populations across the UK have suffered and it is unlikely we shall see a return to former glories but much of our work in Pondhead is aimed at providing an environment in which their numbers can increase.
Butterflies are recognised as valuable environmental indicators because they have short life cycles which causes them to react quickly to environmental changes. Their limited dispersal ability (rarely travelling more than 200 metres from their emergence site), food plant specialisation and close reliance on the weather and climate make many butterfly species sensitive to small changes. Recent research has shown that butterflies have declined more rapidly than birds and plants, which reinforces their key role as environmental indicators. It is for this reason that butterflies are one of the most widely monitored species globally.
UK butterflies are currently in serious decline and remain one of our most threatened wildlife groups with the ongoing deterioration of habitats as the main cause of the decline. The rapid decline in coppice woodlands is a major factor which is why our restoration work in Pondhead is so important. We can help butterflies win their struggle for survival by creating networks of sunny rides which can be used as migration corridors as species can easily become isolated and decline when unmanaged woodland closes in and robs the forest floor of sunlight.
A report by Butterfly Conservation in 2011 (The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2011) disclosed that ten-year trends show that 72% of species declined in abundance at monitored sites and that the UK distributions of 54% of butterflies also declined. Three quarters of species showed a 10-year decrease in either their distribution or population levels.
Each butterfly species has its own habitat requirements. These are determined by the food plant of the caterpillar, the nectar source for the adult butterfly and the conditions needed for the caterpillar to survive and then pupate successfully. Some butterflies are happy to live and feed from several plants and can breed in a variety of places, including gardens and parks while others are more fussy and have very specific requirements. Our aim in Pondhead is to recreate a habitat whereby butterflies can flourish once again. If we achieve this, the resultant increase in caterpillars will also provide a good food source for the bird population, resulting in an increase in their numbers and varieties within our woodland.
Woodlands with tree species ranging in age from saplings to mature trees together with a network of well structured rides and a succession of open clearings and glades, for example through coppicing, will support the greatest number of species. Coppiced woodlands are of huge value as butterfly habitats. The regular cutting regime stimulates a continuous stable supply of larval food plants and adult nectar sources. It also creates a warm sheltered environment that is ideal for butterflies.
One of our rarer butterflies is the Pearl-bordered Fritillary of which we have had a small colony in Pondhead that has managed to survive in limited numbers over the past few winters and cold damp springs. Unfortunately, none were recorded in 2019. Less than a century ago, this species was abundant in the New Forest. In his book, “The Complete Book of British Butterflies”, which was published in 1934 and still regarded by many as the definitive work on the subject, F W Frohawk commented that “this little fritillary is one of the commonest of our woodland butterflies in spring and early summer”. Its favoured habitat is clearings in woods where where the understory is cut or coppiced on a regular basis exposing the woodland floor to sunlight to encourage germination of violet and bugle. Unfortunately this is the type of habitat that no longer exists in many parts of the country which has caused the rapid decline of this species.
Butterfly Conservation have been undertaking transects in Pondhead since 2012, monitoring the occurrence of different species. They undertake two separate transects – Pondhead (northern sector) and Pondhead Wood (southern sector) within the inclosure and a copy of the latest report can be viewed by clicking on them. The following slideshow shows varieties that they have found in Pondhead Inclosure.
The flight calendar below gives an indication of when you can expect to see the different varieties of butterflies in Pondhead. However, much depends on the weather and it is not uncommon to see some winter hibernating species such as Red Admiral, Peacock and Brimstone on the wing during warm sunny days in the middle of winter. Enjoy a walk through Pondhead in the spring or summer and see how many varieties you can spot.