Insects

Walking round Watchtree on a sunny day between April and late summer, you will encounter most of the common butterfly species. You might encounter a Peacock or Small Tortoiseshell, which has overwintered as an adult, emerge from hibernation on a warm day as early as March. In April you will find Orange-tips- the males, as their name suggests, with bright orange wing-tips, and both male and female have beautiful mottled green underwings. Look out for them around Cuckooflower or yellow Charlock where the females lay their eggs.

wall
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Wall

In early May, the ‘Whites’ will also be on the wing – Green-veined, Small and Large White. By mid-May the first brood of Walls will also be flying. These brown and orange butterflies are most likely to be encountered in the dry, grassy areas, especially along the old airfield runways where they like to bask in the sun.  This is a species which is declining in the UK but is doing well at Watchtree.

Dingy Skipper
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Dingy Skipper

Towards the end of May and into early June, Watchtree’s rarest butterfly, the Dingy Skipper will be flying.This species is in rapid decline in the UK and Europe, and Watchtree is one of the few places in north Cumbria where this rare species occurs. The food-plant of the caterpillar is Bird’s-foot Trefoil which grows in abundance at Watchtree, particularly along the sides of the old airfield runways and tracks. This small brown butterfly is sometimes mistaken for a moth, and is well camouflaged on the bare ground on which it regularly basks in the sunshine.  This species needs sheltered, sunny sites with patches of bare ground but also taller vegetation for shelter and roosting in. Habitat management for this rare species is priority at Watchtree.

In summer you can find Common Blue, Small Copper, Large Skipper, Ringlet and Meadow Brown.

Common Blue
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Common Blue

Small Copper
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Small Copper

Large Skipper
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Large Skipper

Ringlet
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Ringlet

Meadow Brown
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Meadow Brown

 

Small Skipper
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Small Skipper

Comma
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Comma

Clouded Yellow
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Clouded Yellow

Later in the summer, our newest colonist, the Small Skipper is also on the wing. This species has spread north into Cumbria in recent years and now Watchtree holds a large population. One of the best places to see this species is along the track which runs along the north of the site.There will also be a second brood of Wall butterflies on the wing in late summer.

Occasionally you might be lucky to see some other species at Watchtree. Commas can sometimes be found along the sunny woodland edges.

Small Heath and Clouded Yellow have also been recorded.

 

Marsh Fritillary Butterfly Project

Marsh Fritillary Habitat
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Marsh Fritillary

Directors, staff and volunteers have for the past three years been engaged in the Cumbria Marsh Fritillary Action Group (CMFAG). This is a Cumbrian-wide project that aims to bring this magical butterfly back to its former breeding grounds and from the clutches of extinction in Cumbria.

The Marsh Fritillary was once widespread throughout Britain and Ireland and indeed much of Western Europe but has declined severely over the twentieth century. Further, its populations are highly volatile with the result that small isolated populations are prone to localised extinctions.

In Cumbria, this stunning butterfly almost became extinct in 2004 – that’s just eight years ago! Since then, and largely thanks to the efforts of butterfly ecologists and sympathetic landowners, the species has begun to recolonise its former breeding grounds. The story of how this species has come back from the brink is simply breath taking: Following a number of years monitoring leading ecologists discovered that in 2004 the only known survivors of this once widespread species was a single batch of larvae in a field on the Solway Plain. The reasons for the decline in Cumbria are not 100% known but the most likely reason suggested is inbreeding created by isolated populations. Urgent action was required – the future of the Cumbrian Marsh Fritillary butterfly hung in the balance. Do nothing and the Cumbrian race becomes extinct, do something and it may at least have a chance. It was decided to take the last surviving larvae into captivity and mix the pure Cumbrian larvae with those from Scotland – it was already clear that the Cumbrian species needed a boost and by cross breeding with the Scottish species the gene pool (and survival) of the Cumbrian species may have a chance. Despite early positive signs in the breeding programme there was clearly a lot of work ahead, indeed, only about 1% of all adults survive in the wild and therefore many thousands of larvae are required to give potential breeding adults a realistic chance of producing the next generation. Since the first captive breeding season in 2007, many thousands of larvae have been bred in specially adapted breeding pens.

Marsh Fritillary Breeding Pen
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Marsh Fritillary Breeding Pen

Watchtree has three such pens and many thousands of Marsh Fritillary larvae have already been released onto well managed and ‘ready’ donor sites throughout Cumbria. Watchtree is currently managing potential Marsh Fritllary grassland habitat by cattle grazing and planting with the all important Devil’s bit Scabious – the larval food plant of the Marsh Fritillary. We will know in successive years if this habitat is ‘ready’ for Marsh Fritillary butterflies but for now at least everyone at Watchtree is working hard for this amazing butterfly.

 

Moths

The variety of habitats at Watchtree means that there is a wide range of moth species which can be found here. A total of 357 moth species have been recorded so far, but this list continues to grow. The Watchtree moth list can be downloaded here.
Some people think that moths are just small, brown, rather boring insects that eat your clothes. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Over 2400 species have been recorded in the British Isles and these come in a wide range of sizes, shapes, colours and patterns. Some species have very specialized requirements; the caterpillars of some species will only feed on one species of plant, some feed on fungi, some on the detritus in birds’ nests, and some caterpillars even live underwater!

Cinnabar
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Cinnabar

Cinnabar Caterpillar
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Cinnabar Caterpillar

Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet
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Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet

July Belle
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July Belle

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are quite a few moths that can be found during the daytime at Watchtree, and some of these are brightly-coloured to warn off predators such as birds. The Cinnabar is one of these spectacular day-flying moths whose brightly-coloured caterpillars feed on Ragwort, storing the plant’s toxins and making them distasteful and poisonous to predators.

Other day-flying species to look out for at Watchtree are Six-spot Burnet Moth, Narrow-bordered Five-spot Burnet, July Belle, Silver Y, Brown Silver-line, Shaded Broad-bar and Latticed Heath. These species can often be found in the grassy area at Watchtree.

Some of the more spectacular moths found at Watchtree include:

Swallow-tailed Moth
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Swallow-tailed Moth

Garden Tiger
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Garden Tiger

Eyed Hawkmoth
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Eyed Hawkmoth

Elephant Hawk-moth
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Elephant Hawk-moth

Puss Moth
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Puss Moth

Merveille du Jour
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Merveille du Jour

Buff Arches
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Buff Arches

Lunar Thorn
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Lunar Thorn

Scorched Wing
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Scorched Wing

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Many of the tiny ‘micro-moths’ found at Watchtree are beautiful when seen close-up.

Nemophora degeerella
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Nemophora degeerella

Eriocrania subpurpurella
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Eriocrania subpurpurella

Acleris bergmanniana
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Acleris bergmanniana

Acleris emargana
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Acleris emargana

Argyresthia brockeella
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Argyresthia brockeella

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watchtree is home to some of Cumbria’s less-common moths. These include:

Lead-coloured Drab
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Lead-coloured Drab

Wood Carpet
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Wood Carpet

Marsh Pug
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Marsh Pug

Small Seraphim
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Small Seraphim

Olive
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Olive

 

 

 

 

To learn more about butterflies and moths visit ButterflyConservation.org