When the Essex skipper came home to roost

It was a warm, heavy July day in 2019 and I was sat idly on the patio of my parents’ backyard garden inbetween my day’s run-arounds and jobs. My ears had been giving me such a fight, exacerbated by my tiredness and lack of having eaten any kind of breakfast. I was exhausted by the time I got home for ‘lunch’.

After a brief flop on my box room bed (which I’d long since intended to have vacated following my January run-away from Kent/early mid life crisis), I padded outside, finally exasperated with the heat. I eased my discomfort with the sight of long grasses swaying in the slight breeze, and the hum of insects passing by.

Rewind two Summers, and I had inadvertently took over the ‘management’ of my parents’ garden. I cockily decided to myself that it needed to be more wild. On weekend visits back home I would look out at their barren looking lawn and mutter cusses under my breath at the lack of flying insects and wild flowers.

“Your garden barely has any insects or plants in it, it’s unnatural. You have a very well-managed but flower-less lawn with a bit of scrub at the back,” I lamented to my father. They’d recently taken on the help of their gardener (now my boyfriend) but their instructions to him were too scant and sterile for my liking. His creative talents were not amply utilised.

Living away on duty in Essex, I had no garden of my ‘own’, save for the sprinklered, manicured lawn out the back of the smart little semi detached house I lived in. The back yard was as dull as the one at home, but I had no say over how it was gardened, being a mere tenant. Our starch-suited landlord (or any of the other tenants, I expect) would not have entertained the idea of me turning the space into a meadow. I had to make do with sniggering at the amorous collared doves who would occasionally shag on the creosoted fence. Or the occasional irrascible looking frog caught in nomansland on the jetwashed patio slabs.

On a weekend jaunt to Dungeness one day, I selected a few locally harvested packs of meadow mix; various legumes being the main component. Back at the house – and being more ‘argricultural’ than ‘horticultural’ – I roughly scraped various small ‘plots’ into the earth. I bedded in the tiny mixes, shuffling about in my bare feet, pondering whether I’d sown too late in the season.

As the garden began to develop from a neat monoculture into a mosaic of mixed swards (having advised by mum to ask the gardener to cut some bits shorter, and leave other areas longer), legumes, nettle patches and scrapes of bare earth, the insects returned. I took it upon myself to excavate two little micro-ponds at the rear. I cut pond liner and lay it over the tiny earthworks, crudely sealing the edges with bricks and small rocks, before adding some bits of hornwort to oxygenate the water. It wasn’t long after, that I spotted a pair of common darters in tandem, skimming over the surface of the smaller pool.

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Meanwhile, my previous boyfriend’s latest lepidopteran fixation had been watching the little golden species of skipper; specifically telling Thymelicus sylvestris (the small/little skipper) from T. lineola (the Essex skipper).

The Essex skipper is not – as its English name might suggest – a butterfly limited to the Essex countryside. Its distribution has in fact boomed over the past twenty-odd years, spreading out from eastern central England, into the fringes of eastern Wales and as far as Somerset in the west.

Because of the similarities, the Essex Skipper has been overlooked both in terms of recording and ecological study, and it was the last British resident species to be described (in 1889). (source: Butterfly Conservation)

For all that time, entomologists hadn’t even looked closely enough at the small golden skippers to notice that many were a different species entirely. Searching through the tiny butterflies for Essexes became quite a game for my then boyfriend. He would look out for the straight bold sex brand on the males, and the sharply marked rounded antennae, that look as if they’ve been dipped abruptly in black ink. Another part of the appeal of them was that they are one of very few British species of butterfly which are spreading in distribution, as opposed to most others, whose ranges and numbers are shrinking at alarming rates. Wanting to see lots of them in great number, Paul even drove up to Essex after work on a couple of occasions, to play “spot the Essexes” on one of my reserves. They tended to be far more numerous than the small skippers.

“Why don’t you try and establish a colony in your parents’ back garden?” Said Paul, one day. “Let lots of cocksfoot establish”.

The coarse grass cocksfoot, (along with others such as timothy and meadow foxtail), is the favourite larval foodplant of the Essex skipper. So establishing such vegetation in good supply was the main way to invite the species onto our tiny bit of suburban land.

“Can do. If enough coarse grasses take hold, they’ll come if they’re in the vicinity,” I mused. Sure enough, over the course of the next year, the ever more scattered and relaxed mowing regime I insisted upon created a patchwork of short turf, sprays of clovers, rampant creeping cinquefoil and nettle patches, with clumps of long thick coarse grasses, mainly cocksfoot.

I didn’t really give the Essex skipper much more thought, but back to that aforementioned day in July 2019, as I was plodding about the garden I noticed several small golden skippers, and deemed them worth a closer look. Inspecting the individual butterflies, lo and behold, I noted that the antennae were distinctively round tipped and black-dipped.

“Well, they came. If you build it, they will indeed come to it,” I thought happily. “And how fitting; it is after all the year I, another Essex skipper of a different kind, came home to roost.”

 

 

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