The Grayling – a master of disguise

Many butterflies are brightly-coloured, from the azure glint of the Common Blue, to the burnt orange of the Small Copper. But one of our most intriguing species is a complete master of disguise: the Grayling, as Anthony McCluskey explains in our guest blog today. When they are in flight it’s easy to see this butterfly, as the wings are brown and orange, and the butterflies are often engaged in energetic courtship flights or defending their territories.

Grayling at Holyrood - AMcCWhen they land though, the wings snap shut and the butterfly can literally disappear in front of our eyes. The undersides of the wings are a mix of grey-brown and light-coloured speckles that look just like gravel or stones. This corresponds incredibly well to the dry stony grasslands that this butterfly breeds in. There are even several recognised sub-species of this butterfly, some of which appear to be adapted to the particular types of plants and rocks of their habitats.

Graylings are now mostly a coastal butterfly, and many inland sites for this species have disappeared. Inland they can still be found in quarries, former industrial sites and along train tracks, where the mix of sparse grass and rocks is perfect for them.

But all is not well for the Grayling; populations have crashed in recent times, and in Scotland it is estimated that the butterfly has declined in abundance by almost 90% over the past thirty years. The story across the UK is bleak too, with declines in abundance of almost 60% in the past forty years reported.

Despite this, it’s still possible to find this butterfly in what seems the most unlikely of places: the heart of Edinburgh! Around Edinburgh there are the remains of ancient volcanoes – Edinburgh Castle is built on one, and Arthur’s Seat is another. The rock that make up these features is hard, and the soil is thin – a perfect home for this elusive butterfly! Similar rocks can be found at Calton Hill, and the ridge of rock faces running parallel to Calton Road. And despite the butterfly’s camouflage, it’s easy to see them there in the summer. They mostly fly from early July to mid-August here, and if it’s a sunny day you’ll see them in this area. I’ve even spotted them drinking nectar from Buddleia bushes on Regent Road!

Calton Hill Work Party (11)

The habitat of the Grayling and other butterflies is threatened by shrubs like Gorse, which can get a hold on the thin soil and shelter out the low-growing wildflowers and grasses. So to help Graylings at Calton Hill and Holyrood Park I’ve been working with volunteers to control the gorse. It’s a prickly job, but a good one to warm us up in winter! Volunteers have also been recording Grayling numbers at Holyrood Park and Calton Hill, and in 2019 they had a real bumper year, with twice as many recorded.

Our next outing to Holyrood to control gorse will be on Sunday 1st March, and you’ll find the details of it and all our events on our events webpage, here: https://butterfly-conservation.org/events/scotland

 

Anthony works for Butterfly Conservation as the Helping Hands for Butterflies Project Officer. His work to support volunteers recording butterflies, and to create and maintain butterfly habitats, is supported by funds from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Scottish Natural Heritage. The work at Holyrood Park and Calton Hill has been supported by Historic Environment Scotland and City of Edinburgh Council.

Marvellous meadows

East Dunbartonshire Council are one of a number of councils converting much of their bland amenity grassland into wildflower meadow.  Under the expert influence of Jackie Gillespie they have made great strides, and as I found out recently, they aren’t finished yet.

DSC_0392

I visited four locations around the Strathkelvin area and saw at first-hand how they are slowly but surely delivering a transformation that is going to be great news for pollinators. And I rather suspect that people are going to like it too.

I started my tour at Lennoxtown in the shadow of the Campsie Fells and the popular cycling challenge that is the famous Crow Road.  Bathed in sunshine down by the River Kelvin I came across a stunning wildflower meadow. This rich meadow is just a few  years old and in summer a glorious technicolour feast for pollinators. The ever-popular John Muir Way runs alongside the meadow and the area is well noted locally. Asking for directions revealed a degree of local pride in ‘our meadow’

DSC_0418

During my visit I saw red-tailed bumblebee, various hoverflies and a generous smattering of butterflies. It was clear that as a source of food the meadow was doing a great job.

A quick hop along the road and I found myself in Bearsden’s Cluny Park. Here a four-year old meadow was perhaps going over, but had,  judging by the comments I heard, made a huge impression locally. Sandwiched between the Bears Way cycle route and busy A81 and has become something of a local landmark. The weather was sunny and fine, the mix of grasses were swaying in the gentle breeze and cyclists were gliding past … all in all a most tranquil scene on the fringes of Scotland’s largest city.

DSC_0440

If the Bearsden meadow is highly visible then the equivalent in Torrance could accurately be described as being ‘tucked away’. This is a new meadow so at the moment the planting has just been completed. As anyone who knows about meadows will testify, you need patience. It isn’t much to look at just now, just a series of pock marks on the grass but given time an array of wildflowers will pop through.  No two meadows are alike, no single meadow is the same year on year … and always there are challenges. Here the challenge might be the proximity to the River Kelvin and the banks of rosebay willow-herb patiently poised for areas to spread into.  Time will tell.

My final port of call was Milton of Campsie, where like Torrance, works are at an early stage. I feel the folks of Milton of Campsie are on the verge of being spoiled, for the ambitious folks at East Dunbartonshire Council have gone for not one, not two, but three meadows. The new meadows promise to give pollinators some great forage in addition to the plethora of gardens that are a proud hallmark of this community.

Creating meadows is a sure-fire way to help pollinators.  Tackling historic loss of habitat, and a shortage of food, is an incredibly practical step to take to help deliver Scotland’s pollinator strategy.   It hasn’t been easy, and it may not look at its best yet, but in time what East Dunbartonshire Council have done will be mightily well-received – by people and pollinators.