Chalk grassland butterflies
Chalk grassland is a very precious habitat for some of Britain's rarest butterflies. The chalk absorbs the heat from sunshine and the thin soil supports the right plants for these picky eaters. The chalk of the North Downs makes the Surrey Hills a very special place for these beautiful creatures.
How to identify the habitat. Look for short grass on top of white-ish soil along the side of the North Downs. There may be some scrubby patches of bramble and hawthorn around you with open spaces in between. The thin soil allows the chalk under the grass to absorb the heat of sunshine and in summer these can become fantastic suntraps. The warm south-facing sites are especially important because butterflies don’t like the cold and wet.
Hunt around for patches of flowers and grasses which are butterfly food plants. Many of these have yellow flowers such as the small bright yellow and red flowers of bird’s-foot-trefoil; the bright yellow and distinctively circular flowers of horseshoe vetch; kidney vetch which has yellow flowers sitting on top of little ‘wooly cushions’; the elongated petals of cowslip; the large dark yellow flowers and low shrubby growth of common rock-rose.
Where to explore this sort of habitat: Box Hill; Denbies Hillside; Headley Heath; Reigate Hill. Much chalk grassland in England has been given over to farming or has become overgrown by shrubs such as dogwood, hawthorn and blackthorn, and trees such as sycamore and ash. We use Belted Galloway cattle to graze these slopes ensuring that wildflowers can thrive. Protecting the flowers means protecting the butterflies.
What sort of butterflies can you discover? These slopes attract a number of species: silver-spotted skipper; green hairstreak; small blue; brown argus; common blue; chalkhill blue; dark green fritillary; marbled white; meadow brown; small heath; small skipper.