The end of May and beginning of June sees the butterfly world start to really take off. There’ve been a few lovely butterflies pottering around during early spring (orange tip, brimstone and peacock mainly) but now the most showy members of the insects rock up to Nature’s party.
Adonis was the God in the Greek myths that we associate with exceptional handsomenss and beauty, and the butterfly named after him is a stunningly eye-catching one. During the last week of May and into early June, this electric-blue butterfly (few photos really do justice to its colour) shines brightly on sunny days as it flies around looking either for a female to mate with or one of its favourite flowers to feed on. The female isn’t blue but mainly dark brown – a common story as the female of many species is a brown colour to keep her hidden from predators – though there can be a blue sheen on where the wings are close to its body.
There are a number of different types of butterfly in the group called The Blues, and the common blue is ‘on the wing’ (as naturalists say) at the same time as the Adonis. But the vividness of the Adonis’ colour means you’ll know when you’ve seen one and won’t mistake it for its paler-blue cousin.
Minchinhampton Common is a great place to go Adonis-spotting as this butterfly hangs around on the ridges that run along the common near Tom Long’s Post. These are the remains of Iron Age defenses and called The Bulwarks by local people. The slopes of the ridges are covered with very short grass which is just what the Adonis likes, and it’s an ideal place for horseshoe vetch plants to grow – this is the only food its caterpillars will eat (and we think our children are fussy eaters).
Minchinhampton Commom is covered with a special type of grassland called unimproved limestone grassland – ‘unimproved’ because it hasn’t had fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides put on it for a long, long time which means wildlife can flourish there. Because of this, the whole common is protected as a site of special scientific interest. The limestone rock underneath the soil makes it alkaline (as opposed to acidic) so certain flowers can grow there: like horseshoe vetch, thyme, bird’s foot trefoil which are all flowers whose nectar is the Adonis adult’s haute cuisine.
Unimproved limestone grassland also is home to lots of ants, and these play a vital role in the Adonis caterpillars’ survival. Near the end of the caterpillar’s body is a gland which secretes a sugary liquid which ants love to eat. So the ants protect the caterpillar from predators and parasites in return for this high-energy food. The ants even act as nanny at night: half a dozen or so caterpillars will huddle together at night and the ants cover them in a thin layer of soil then stand guard all night!
One reaon the common is a great place to go Adonis-spotting is that’s flat so no demanding steep climbs here, a gentle saunter will enable you to reach and wander along the Bulwarks. Kids will love running up and down the slopes. There’s also a carpet of golden buttercups at the moment, early purple orchids should still be flowering and skylarks sing overhead. You can round off – or begin – your butterfly-watching session with a picnic close to the car with a picnic where the grass is shorter. Some weekends also see an ice-cream van parked at the car parking area – what’s not to like about spending a sunny day here?!
Words of caution – as you’re walking around the common, keep an eye out for skylark nests which are on the ground amongst the long grass. I once stopped to look at some orchids and realised that a nest with 3 speckled eggs was just inches from my clodd-hopping feet. I was horrified to think I’d nearly stepped on them. Also, free-roaming cows are let onto the common on the 12th May each year. They’re used to people but please keep your dog under control around them, especially when there are calves in the herds.
When to visit: the Adonis adults are flying from late May until early June. A still warm, sunny day is the best weather to go butterfly-spotting as they absorb the heat from around them (they don’t make their own body heat like we do). And they don’t like wind as that makes it hard work for them to fly.
Location: the Adonis Blues are best seen along the Bulwarks. From the car parking area near the reservoir (see Directions below for details), walk away from the reservoir and head to the road which is the one running at right angles to the road which the car parking area is on. Cross this road (Tom Long’s post should be to your left) and keep walking straight ahead with the car parking area behind you. Aim for the ridges of land you should see in front of you – but watch out for flying golf balls as the common also doubles up as a golf course. Walk along the ridge – this is part of the Bulwarks. The Bulwarks also continues on the other side of the road. Once you’re on the Bulwarks, you’ll see them all around you. It’s difficult to get lost as the whole area is flat and you’ll be able to see where you are and where the car parking area is.
How much time to allow: as long as you like. It only takes about 5 minutes to walk to the Bulwarks.
Terrain: flat, but you’ll be walking through long-ish grass so it won’t necessarily be even. There aren’t any ‘proper’ paths as such. The sides of the Bulwarks are steep but not very high. So, unfortunately, this isn’t a good area for wheelchairs or people with mobility problems.
Facilities: none on site, but the Old Lodge is a great pub on the common and has a lovely garden where you can sit and enjoy a drink. I don’t think they have any objection to children being in the pub during the day. Minchinhampton is definitely worth a visit as it’s a beautiful old Cotswold town with lovely tea shop, restuarants, the Crown pub, and shops.
Directions: drive across the common on the main road from Rodborough towards Minchinhampton village. At the skew-wiff junction at Tom Long’s Post (a tall white post with direction signs on the top and a name sign saying ‘Tom Longs Post’), turn right and then right again a few yards just beyond. Drive a few yards and you’ll see some parking areas on the right. There’ll be a large, raised mound beyond – this is a covered reservoir.