Wildlife Wednesday: 7 tips for a butterfly friendly garden

Peacock butterflyThis week is Save Our Butterflies Week. The flutter of the brightly coloured wings of a butterfly through the sunny spring air has always been to me a symbol of optimism and the coming of summer. With their delicate, eye-catching and magical form and their intriguing transformation from wriggly caterpillar to fully fledged flying beauty, butterflies are also a firm favourite with children of all ages.

Sadly though, butterflies are on the decline in the UK, with a 2011 report showing that loss of habitats, biodiversity and a rapidly changing climate have caused three-quarters of all UK butterfly species to decrease in population or distribution levels over the past ten years. This is a worrying trend. In addition to their aesthetic and educational value, butterflies and moths are important pollinators and are a key indicator of ecosystem health. Butterfly, moth and caterpillar levels are also a key part of the food chain, with the insects providing food for bats, small birds and other animals, with any decline in numbers having a direct knock-on effect higher up the food-chain. Butterfly Conservation for example estimate that Blue Tits alone eat around 50 billion moth caterpillars a year!

The good news is that no matter whether your garden extends to acres or just a windowsill or two, we can all do something to encourage butterflies and educate our children about their importance. Here are some top tips for encouraging butterflies in your garden:

1) Size doesn’t matter: If you only have a very small garden, balcony or large windowsill, plant pots of butterfly friendly flowers throughout the year. Consider putting up a butterfly feeder and double up on space by planting flowering butterfly friendly herbs such as Marjoram, Rosemary and Thyme.

2) Big, bold & colourful: Butterflies are attracted to large splashes of colour, particularly favouring pink, purple and yellow flowers, so plant bright coloured flowering plants in large bold clusters rather than spread out to tempt butterflies.

3) Encourage caterpillars: For those of us who have read the Hungry Caterpillar, we all know that to transform into a beautiful butterfly the wriggly caterpillar must first get a good feed. Whilst I’m not suggesting you put out plums, oranges, chocolate cake or salami in your garden, do plant caterpillar friendly plants to encourage butterflies to lay their eggs and allow caterpillars to thrive. And no, this doesn’t mean sacrificing your cabbage plants. Those with room should give over an area to wild plants such as Horseshoe Vetch, grasses, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Nettles and Wild Thyme. Other good plants include Violets, Primroses and the Common Rock Rose. A full list of caterpillar friendly plants can be found at Butterfly Conservation here. 

4) Create a sun-trap: Butterflies need warmth to survive and cannot fly when they are too cold. Make sure your butterfly garden is in a sheltered spot. Brick walls or large stones are ideal features as they absorb the day’s sunshine and act as radiators for resting butterflies to warm up on.

5) Multi-season flowers: whilst butterflies are most active in the summer, butterflies require food from March to October. Plan your garden to have a long flowering season of nectar rich plants which both you and the butterflies will enjoy. Try Heathers, Wallflowers, Honesty and Aubretia for springtime, summertime favourites of Buddleia, Lavender and Sweet William and autumn food in the form of Michelmas Daisies, Sedum, Helenium and Ivy.

Peacock butterfly warming up in greenhouse

6) Put up a butterfly feeder: give butterflies an extra helping hand by feeding them sugar solution from these purpose built feeders. You can buy them from garden centres or online or make your own with the kids. 

7) Educate and observe: Teaching our children about the importance of butterflies and their role in the ecosystem is vital for future conservation success. What’s more, spotting and learning to identify caterpillars and butterflies is great fun for kids and a fantastic way of getting them out grubbing about in the fresh air. Invest in a simple book or identify butterflies you see online. Getting kids to create their own local butterfly identification book including drawings and facts is also a brilliant educational rainy day activity.

Want to find out more? Visit the Butterfly Conservation website for lots more information on butterflies and moths. These pages from the Eden Project and RSPB are also full of helpful ideas.

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