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Nature & Wildlife

Across the region, we are lucky to have a wide variety of habitats and landscapes giving us the opportunity to observe a wide range of flora and fauna. From windswept shores to inland waterways, from plains to craggy rockfaces, each has secrets to share. 

At Living, we have teamed up with experts in the region to show you what to watch out for at the different times of year...

 

Fluttering By....local butterflies in south west France

Fluttering By....local butterflies in south west France

Chris Luck meets Neil Wilding, a specialist in lepidopterology, the study of butterflies and moths, to find out about the region’s diversity....

 PHOTOS © Fabrice & Nadège Conort

neil-wilding-deux-sevres-natureA respected member and volunteer with Deux-Sèvres Nature Environnement, Neil has lived in the département since 1992. With a degree in entomology, he has played an important role in the research and preparation of a butterfly atlas of Poitou-Charentes due, hopefully, for publication in 2014. This will be of the same high standard as the previously reviewed dragonfly atlas, 'Libellules du Poitou-Charentes', providing precise information on the distribution, abundance, life-cycle and conservation status of each species. While it is written in French, the extensive use of distribution maps and photos means that the information will be accessible to those with only a minimal knowledge of the language. The data has been collected by more than 150 observers across the region and with the help of the other départemental natural history associations.

With 115 species, Poitou-Charentes hosts nearly half of the 247 known species of butterfly to be found in France. Of this 115 species, a dozen are protected and 44 are recognised as sensitive indicators of particular habitats. The presence of these sensitive species and their corresponding habitat requirements has helped with establishment of some protected CREN sites (Conservatoire Régional d'Espaces Naturels).

The complex work of recording the different butterflies and their locations has involved a substantial number of people and a huge amount of time since 2009. Some species are only able to be determined by their genitalia which is something that Neil is authorised to do. A small team, including Neil, has also been working through old collections from the 1940s-60s and documents dating back as far as the early 1900s. It is thanks to these that proper comparisons can be made and conclusions reached regarding population trends, including the complete absence today of species once present or vice versa.

Accurate, extensive recording of all species is important but butterflies in particular can be considered as very good bio-indicators of terrestrial environments. Thanks to their population dynamics and trophic link with plants which act as hosts for caterpillars, they are an essential component to measure any changes to the environment and habitat structures.

Neil explains: "Not surprisingly the particular requirements of some butterfly species tend to be overlooked by the general population. Not only must specific plants be available for the particular caterpillars to feed on but those same plants may need to remain in place without cutting or mowing for most, if not all, of the year. This allows the completion of the life-cycle." Given the continuous degradation of the French countryside, this is something that everyone with a small piece of land could consider which would help not only our butterflies and moths but many other species too.

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Berger’s Clouded Yellow (Colias alfacariensis) is a fairly common butterfly on limestone slopes in our region, where its caterpillars feed on horseshoe vetch. This one is resting at the end of the day on flowers of field eryngo.

Brown Hairstreak (Thecla betulae)

The Brown Hairstreak (Thecla betulae) is a discrete little butterfly, seldom observed. However, during the ongoing butterfly survey of the Poitou-Charentes, searches for its eggs on shoots of blackthorn during the winter show that it is widely distributed.

Geranium Bronze (Cacyreus marshalli)

The Geranium Bronze (Cacyreus marshalli) is the sole newcomer to the area. It is a native of South Africa and was introduced to Europe with shipments of geraniums – the host plant of its caterpillars. It has spread from the south and is now often seen in towns and villages on displays of geraniums.

Large Blue (Phengaris arion)

The Large Blue (Phengaris arion) became extinct in the UK but has been successfully re-introduced. It is the largest of many ‘blues’ to be found on limestone grassland in Western France though fears are expressed for its future as suitable habitat is eroded by modern agricultural practices.

Large Copper (Lycaena dispar)

Large Copper (Lycaena dispar). This striking little butterfly (here a male), extinct in the UK since 1851, is not uncommon in our region of France. With its distinctive silvery grey undersides, it can be seen flitting above the vegetation in damp untreated meadows, often by streams.

Large Chequered Skipper (Heteropterus morpheus)

The Large Chequered Skipper (Heteropterus morpheus) is a butterfly of damp heaths, meadows and woodland clearings. It has an unusual distribution, being restricted to the western half of France. It is characterised by its yo-yo like flight, as it bounces along just over the vegetation.

Large Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis polychloros)

The Large Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis polychloros) died out in England in the 50s so it was thrilling to see them overwintering in the grenier when we arrived in Deux-Sèvres 20 years ago.

Spotted Fritillary (Melitaea didyma)

The Spotted Fritillary (Melitaea didyma) is one of four fritillaries to be seen in flowery meadows and forest rides in our region. None of these are present in mainland Britain and consequently delight the eye of a British butterfly enthusiast.

Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius)

The Scarce Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius) is, in fact, less scarce than the Common Swallowtail. It is a frequent visitor to gardens in the region, visiting the flowers of buddleia and other shrubs. The caterpillars feed on blackthorn and fruit trees but never enough to cause damage.

Lesser Purple Emperor (Apatura ilia)

The Lesser Purple Emperor (Apatura ilia) is one of our largest butterflies. It closely resembles the Purple Emperor which also occurs here as well as in the UK. The Lesser Purple Emperor usually flies around mature trees in damp areas and is relatively common in the Marais Poitevin.

Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

The Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) has suffered a dramatic decline in recent years. Perhaps the commonest butterfly in the 70s in England and very common here only 10 years ago, you are now lucky to see one in Poitou-Charentes. This one was kind enough to visit some leek flowers last year.

Butterfly Viewing Tips

Flowers and sunshine attract butterflies and they will often return after short flights. Woodland clearings, unspoilt meadows, chalky free-draining slopes and low-lying marshy areas by ponds or streams/rivers all provide good habitats. In the spring and autumn choose sunny days any time after 11am until dusk; in summer, the best opportunity is between 10am–1pm or after 6pm when they are flying more slowly or roosting. Sunny spells between showers are also good. As most activity is between 20° and 28°C, once the thermometer heads over 30°C it’s time to pack up.

“Don’t chase after them - stand still and try to follow their flight until they settle, then approach cautiously,” advises Nick. “A pair of binoculars with a minimum focal length of about 1m and a fairly simple compact camera with the usual macro facility are fine, and I take photos, if I need to, as I approach the target.”

Certain species have distinct habits and require different techniques - like the Purple Emperors which can sometimes be attracted to the ground from their lofty flights by sugary/rotting-fruit baits. Equally they are attracted to less appealing items like dung or rotting carcasses.

© All rights reserved. Originally published in Living Magazine April 14