Help us create a mile of butterflies

There are many places where there are small numbers of butterflies but few areas in Devon where there are large populations of tens of thousands. We are seeking to create a mile of continuous butterfly habitat (a mix of grassland, hedges and woods) where metapopulations of butterflies can develop. For every new wedding booked in 2025 and 2026 we will spend an additional £250 on creating butterfly habitat and we will share updates on our website on how it is progressing.

What do you hope to do?

We currently have four “butterfly hotspots” on the farm where it is possible to see hundreds of butterflies flying in the summer; we want to enlarge these areas and link them up so there is over a continuous mile of butterfly habitat with tens of thousands of butterflies.

What will that achieve?

If you create good butterfly habitat it benefits hundreds of other species – our existing meadows are full of bees, hoverflies, grasshoppers and spiders. Moths are very important, too. Whilst we have 59 species of butterfly in the UK, there are over 2,400 moth species, so for every butterfly species you accommodate, there are dozens or even hundreds of moth species that also benefit; the same is also true for beetles. These in turn support species of birds and bats.

How do you know what to do?

There is a lot of published information on the lifecycles of butterflies and what their caterpillar food plants are plus we have over 20 years experience of managing our land for wildlife, so we know what has worked here. Butterflies divide into generalists and specialists; the generalists are easy to accommodate as they like common plants and habitats; the specialists are more difficult as they have specific needs.

We undertake general management to try and create a species rich mosaic of habitats with as many different plants and animals in it as possible. We also carry out management targeted at specific species, so for instance White Admirals caterpillars only eat honeysuckle, so we encourage the growth of honeysuckle in the woods.  Fritillary caterpillars like violets whilst the Dingy Skipper likes bare ground to bask on. We also sow or encourage specific plants that we know are good for butterflies such as birdsfoot trefoil (common blue caterpillars eat it) and Knapweed which is used by a wide range of butterflies to nectar on.

What species do you have?

We have 24 species of butterfly which range from the very common (large white, peacock, comma) to the rarer (white admiral, silver washed fritillary, green hairstreak). We have also seen four others in the past which we have not seen for a while or were only here for a short time (wall, brown hairstreak, dingy skipper, pearl bordered fritillary) and in addition we feel we ought to see the Dark Green Fritillary and Graylings, so overall we will be carrying out management for 30 species of butterfly and hoping that we might see 26 or 27 species.

Which butterflies are you hoping will develop into large colonies?

Grassland butterflies can develop into large colonies and we already have sizeable colonies of marbled white, ringlets, meadow browns, gatekeepers and skippers. It is very exciting to see a dozen ringlets chasing each other (or a female) along the hedgerows and we would like that to be commonplace.

Which butterflies do you hope will increase but may not number thousands?

We have had some success with silver washed fritillaries; on our best day I have seen 30 and it would be good to turn that into a hundred or hundreds. We carry out a lot of management for the white admiral and promote honeysuckle growth in the woods. The most we ever see in a day is four but a visiting entomologist once said he saw 13 some years ago, so there may be more about than we think. We are intending to plant honeysuckle in the “new” woods and hopefully that might boost their numbers. Skippers (large and small) seem to go through boom and bust cycles.

Where are you in the work programme to create the mile of butterflies?

In 2021 we took back in hand 60 acre of farmland and in the autumn we reseeded 36 acres of fields with butterfly friendly grass mixes. In 2022 this grass was grown sufficiently for butterflies to drop their eggs into and in 2023 we saw our first butterflies appear over it. One field that we only saw one or two butterflies in previously had an estimated 500 flying in July 2023, mainly marbled white and meadow browns but also including our only sighting of a green hairstreak.

We have also carried out scrub clearance to open up and link spaces around our best area for butterflies and we are clearing holly scrub in the woods (see photos).

What else needs doing?

The grass we have planted will have a certain number of flowers in it, but these can be increased through the addition of further seed and the grass will need to be managed to prevent docks or thistles proliferating.  We have conifers to remove from the ancient woodland and holly scrub needs reducing.  We intend to thin along the boundaries to create a more varied edge habitat and we will also need to undertake monitoring and survey work.  There is no shortage of work to do!

How will booking a wedding at The Oak Barn help create butterfly habitat?

For every wedding booked in 2025 and 2026 we will spend an extra £250 on improving our habitats. This money will be spent on labour to progress the works in the woodland and on seed to diversify the grasslands.

How will we know how works are progressing?

Updates through 2024 and 2025 will be shared on our website and social media pages.

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