Milkmaids and Butterflies

Male orange tip butterfly on a cuckoo flower

Between the river and the wood on my patch there is a five acre paddock of rush pasture.  In all the time I have lived here it has never been cultivated.  It floods every winter, and in all but the driest of summers there are still marshy areas with pools of standing water.  Most people walk past along the raised river bank without paying much attention, but to me it is a secret paradise.  One morning last summer there were so many house martins hunting over the rushes that their white rumps looked like a blizzard of snowflakes.

In the winter snipe hide amongst the soft rush, rarely giving themselves away unless accidentally flushed.  Mallard dabble in the flood water, and I have even seen flocks of teal flying overhead on bitterly cold days.  Black headed gulls can look ethereal wheeling over the water with wintry sun on their backs.

From late April the rhynes bounding the field are outlined by the vibrant yellow of bargeman’s cabbage (more prosaically known as wild turnip) and the grass between the rushes is studded with delicate pink flowers.  These are ladies smock, also called cuckoo flowers because they appear with the first cuckoo, or milkmaids.

Milkmaids are brassicas, members of the cabbage family.  Along with Jack by the hedge, or garlic mustard, they are food plants for the caterpillars of one of our most beautiful spring butterflies, the orange tip.  The butterflies overwinter as a chrysalises and in April the adults begin to emerge.  Both sexes have beautiful mossy green camouflage patterns on their lower underwings, but only males have the distinctive orange wing tips which warn predators that they are distasteful.

Male orange tip showing mossy pattern on underwings

After mating females search out food plants along hedges and woodland margins laying eggs under flower buds.  Each egg is laid on a separate plant to prevent the cannibalistic offspring from eating each other.  The growing caterpillars are well camouflaged as they look just like the seed pods they feed on.  When they are fully grown they leave their food plants to pupate on bushes and tall vegetation where they remain until the adult butterflies emerge the following spring.

Orange tip butterfly egg laid on garlic mustard

I have spent many happy hours sitting amongst the soft rush and milkmaids trying to photograph orange tips.   They rarely settle for long, and I have had limited success, but I will keep trying.  This year I will also be searching for eggs and caterpillars in the hope of finding some to take home to raise for myself.  It may be a childlike thing to do, but I like to believe there is still a child in each of us.

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