On a sunny Saturday afternoon in June what better plan than to go and look for butterflies? We didn’t head off up the Dale as one might expect, we caught a train to Shipley station. There, between platforms 2 and 5 and slap up against the car park, is a very small fenced area, preserved for its butterflies. It’s tiny – only 0.9 hectares – but has never been ploughed and so survives as a remnant of neutral, natural meadowland rich in grasses and wild flowers including the food plants for many grassland butterflies and moths. It’s owned by Network Rail and managed jointly by Butterfly Conservation, Bradford Urban Wildlife Group and Leeds Groundwork Trust, and Saturday was the annual Open Day with volunteers on hand to offer guidance and help with identification.
As soon as we passed through the wooden gate we were delighted by the brilliant patchwork of flowers: great banks of bird’s-foot trefoil, the seed heads of earlier cowslips and tall heavy-stemmed hogweed. It reminded me of the fields of my childhood that used to rapidly yellow my white socks with pollen. The bird’s-foot trefoil is particularly important. It’s the food plant of the common blue butterfly – not common at all in our area – that generally emerges from hibernating chrysalis form ready for the Open Day. The males of our Northern species are a more intense blue, delightful to see against the yellow trefoil. The females are usually more browny-fawn with varying degrees of blue overtones but here at Shipley there have been examples of the rarer bluer form. What a treat!
Alas, not to be our treat. Perhaps because of the delayed season or possibly winter losses, no blues emerged during our visit. However, the hogweed attracted several speckled woods – dainty brown butterflies decorated with cream spots – which have only arrived this far north in the last few years as a result of climate change and now bid fair to becoming our commonest garden butterfly. We also saw a rather battered comma – presumably a winter survivor – and a mint-fresh large skipper, flashing copper against the brambles and tall grasses of the perimeter hedge. An extra surprise was finding a couple of stout green caterpillars, each adorned with neat rows of dark spots, in the process of climbing up grass stems, probably intent on forming their papery cocoons there from which to emerge later as handsome six-spot Burnet moths. This species also relishes the bird’s-foot trefoil. This little gem of a reserve only has an official open day once a year. It’s important that the herbs and grasses don’t get crushed and trampled. We visitors were funnelled carefully along the one narrow pathway and back. However, the area can easily be surveyed over the fence, and a good pair of binoculars would give perfectly acceptable views of butterflies and moths as they go about their business. I wonder how many regular commuters even know it’s there!