The earlier pictures were taken on my wee compact Canon ixus 970IS, which involved sneaking up on the butterflies. This can be very frustrating when they fly off, but very rewarding when they don't!

Since 2012 I have been using a Panasonic Lumix FZ150, which allows me to zoom in to the butterflies from a couple of metres away.



Saturday, 19 December 2015

Butterflies through time (1)

We only have 25 different species of butterflies here in East Lothian. However, thirty years ago there were only about half that number. I have always been interested in why we have recorded so many new species here in recent years. Is it because we are putting more effort into searching for the butterflies, or are these genuine increases in the range of these species?

Recently I was lucky enough to find a second-hand copy of "The Butterflies of Scotland" by George Thomson.  This was writen in 1980 and I was keen to see the distribution maps and compare them with those in the 1970 "Provisional Atlas of the Insects of the British Isles" and with the current distribution maps produced by Butterfly Conservation. However, I was delighted to discover that the author has also included the history of records for each species going back to the early 1800s.

I have been spending hours reading this book and learning about how the distribution of many species of butterflies has changed over the years. Some of what I have read confirms what people have told me but there were a few surprised in there too!


I will start with some now common butterflies. The Orange Tip, Anthocharis cardamines, is said to have been widespread throughout southern and east Scotland in the early 1800s and it remained so until the 1880s, but after that its range contracted to south west Scotland. In about 1950 it was considered to be advancing back towards the Lothians. The map in Butterflies of Scotland shows it occurring in South-west Scotland and the Highlands, with one or two records in between. My boss, who was a countryside ranger in the 1970s says he remembered them only being along the River Esk in the west of East Lothian. Since then they have spread and they are now commonly seen in the spring across much of East Lothian and Scotland.


The Peacock, Aglais io, was recorded in south west Scotland in the 1700s and it continued to be recorded there through the 1800s with sporadic records across Scotland. However, by the start of the 1900s it was becoming rarer. It is thought that small colonies persisted on the west coast of Scotland, but that other records from around Scotland were migrants. Records started to pick up again in the 1950s and since then it has continued to spread across Scotland. It wasn't until the 1980s that it was found in East Lothian.

Ringlets, Aphantopus hyperantus, were said to be abundant in East Lothian in 1852, but by the end of that century they were becoming scarce. The last record from East Lothian around that time was in 1928. It was recorded again in 1984 in the east of East Lothian and has since spread across the whole county, now being common and numerous.


There are records of the Comma, Polygonia c-album, occurring in Southern Scotland, and up to Fife in the 1850s, but after that its range contracted until in 1920s it was only regularly occurring in the southern half of England. From around the 1980s it underwent a rapid expansion and reached the Scottish Borders in the 1990s and was first recorded again in East Lothian in 2001. Since 2006 it has become established here and has slowly become more numerous.

So, three of these species were certainly in East Lothian in the early 1800s, and most likely the Peacock was also occasionally found here then, too. Now the question is not so much why they occur here now, but why they moved away and then returned. I will have a look at the other more recent arrivals in East Lothian and see if I can find information about the weather during this period. More to follow...

12 comments:

  1. All very beautiful and very delicate.

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    1. Yes, maybe they are more delicate than we realise. I am looking forward to seeing them again in the spring.

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  2. Oh that Orange tip!!
    This is probably my favourite of the smaller species, a great photo too.
    I guess the evolution of habitat must be closely linked the climate changes, variations of sea currents and air currents along the coasts.
    Your post is very interesting, I believe easily this book captured your attention for hours and you will often go back to it.
    Keep well Nick, and enjoy the festivities :)

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    1. Hi Noushka. Yes, definitely my favourite butterfly, but so difficult to get a decent picture without any glare. They close their wings as soon as the sun goes in, but there is a split second after a cloud comes over when it is possible to get a decent picture.
      I have enjoyed reading the book and it has certainly made me think about climate change, etc.
      I wish you luck over Christmas. I know it will be a very difficult time for you. I hope that you will have family around you this year.

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  3. I like the sapphire "eyes" of the Peacock, set on a burnt orange background. The Orange Tip is a nice variation of minimalism in simple lines and design.

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    1. We really take the Peacock for granted. It must be one of the most spectacular butterflies in the world. If you look at the picture upside down (and screw your eyes up) it looks like the face of an owl. They hibernate over the winter, but if they are disturbed they flash their wings open. It gives you quite a start!
      The Orange Tip is really lovely. I was really excited to find two of their chrysalises today.

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  4. These are just beautiful images Nick. The shape of the third one is fantastic though.

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    1. We are lucky to have so many lovely butterflies here now.

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  5. Nick, the pattern seems to be that at one point each species experiences a downturn and and disappears from East Lothian and then years later is rediscovered. I suppose their ranges shift around as conditions change. It's the same in Singapore, just that we are experiencing the surge of rediscoveries right now!

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    1. Jonny, I think you are absolutely right. My wife's cousin is a geologist and she mentioned the "mini-ice age". Although there are a few interpretations of this is seems that there was cool period around 1850 when butterflies appeared to disappear from this part of the UK. I am interested to hear that something similar is happening in Singapore. I am assuming a warming of average temperatures is changing things here. Is there a trend in climatic conditions there?

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    2. That's interesting to hear about the "mini ice age". Over here, I doubt it's a climatic change but rather just the effects of time. When Singapore underwent rapid industrialisation, starting in the 1960s, many forests and mangroves were cleared and many species - not just butterflies - went with them. Now, more species are re-establishing themselves, perhaps from Malaysia. I think the fact that there are more eyes out in the field looking for butterflies has also revealed species that I'm sure have always been around.

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    3. That is interesting and it is great to hear that butterflies are doing well over there.

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