Why Sustainable Woodland Management has an Important Role in Butterfly Conservation

Ben Law
Thursday, 12th June 2014

Ben Law manages his chestnut coppice at Prickly Nut Wood to create building & coppice products whilst creating diverse wildlife conservation areas, perfect for the rare Pearl-bordered Fritillary.

The warm start to this year has been good for butterflies and the woods have been busy with regular sightings of Brimstones, Peacocks and Orange Tips. One butterfly that appears from late April through May (dependent on weather conditions) is the Pearl-bordered Fritillary (top image). This small butterfly that was once common throughout coppiced woods has all but disappeared in West Sussex, hanging on in tiny colonies where some years emerging numbers can be counted in single figures. 

There is a small surviving colony not so far from Prickly Nut Wood. The colony has been restricted by the planting of Douglas fir and Norway spruce that, as it grows, shades out the larval food plant of the butterfly – the common dog violet. The colony has been kept going by the work of Dr. Dan Hoare from South East England Butterfly Conservation and Graham West, a ranger from the South Downs National Park. They have been monitoring numbers, opening up rides and coppicing small areas to improve the habitat for this butterfly.

Much of my work at Prickly Nut Wood has involved the re-coppicing of many areas of derelict mixed coppice. These areas contain a healthy volume of dog violet as well as the favoured nectar plants bugle and bluebell. Meetings with Dan and Graham have confirmed that the area looks very suitable for the Pearl-bordered Fritillary. As I coppice an area of four to five acres of coppice every year, there is a good opportunity for the butterfly to establish, if it made the transition across to my woods. However, all I can do is create the right conditions, the butterfly may have other ideas!

The advantage of a colony establishing in a managed coppice woodland is that the annual coppicing should ensure that suitable habitat is maintained as part of the regular forestry operations, rather than having to manage land areas purely for the butterflies' habitat. The decline of regular coppice management reflects the decline in numbers of this beautiful butterfly. This tale of the Pearl-bordered Fritillary also highlights the importance of observating the woodland prior to making any management decisions. I have always recommended that woodland assessment should be carried out for at least a year prior to drawing up management plans and beginning work. Perhaps had this been carried out, the decision to plant the spruce and fir may have been re-considered.

The cycle of a butterfly can be a useful aid to woodland management planning. At Prickly Nut Wood, one of my favourite butterflies is the White Admiral. This beautifully marked butterfly can be seen along the woodland rides from mid-June for about 6 weeks. Its larval food plant is honeysuckle, which is abundant throughout Prickly Nut Wood.

Honeysuckle is often seen as a nuisance plant to the forester, as its twisting habitat can deform the trees it grows up. However when making walking sticks and rustic furniture the twists in the wood created by the honeysuckles growth can be an attractive feature. The White Admirals favoured nectar plants are bramble and thistle. In fact the bramble is essential to many butterflies including the ‘Silver-washed fritillary’ - another summer regular at Prickly Nut Wood. So think twice before cutting back all those brambles in the wood, they often act as a natural tree guard, protecting young trees from deer grazing and once a canopy is established they will naturally retreat due to the reduced light levels. Also don’t forget the blackberries!

(Top image of Pearl Bordered Fritillary thanks to Graham West.)

Further resources

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Woodland co-operation: restoring woodlands and providing volunteers with cheap fuel

The Woodland Way - A Permaculture Approach to Sustainable Woodland Management by Ben Law. Special price £14.21 (rrp £18.95)

A Sanctuary of Trees by Gene Logsdon

How to build a beautiful, energy efficient round home in the woods

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