Hockley Wood’s Heath Fritillaries

June 2nd.  It was three years ago, when this blog was in it’s infancy, that I last drove the 120 miles south to Essex in search of one of Britain’s rarest butterflies.  Except for our trip to the Brecks, all my driving this year has been the 5 miles to and from work on our local country lanes.  So, it was quite daunting and a bit nervy to hit the dual-carriage ways at 70-80mph and battle it out with the endless line of heavy goods vehicles and business men on a mission, yep ‘lockdown’ is over it seems.  Anyway two and a half hours later I arrived safe and sound.  With blue skies, temperatures in the mid 70’s and a very light breeze it was a lovely day to hunt butterflies.

Heath Fritillaries just love bramble flowers

The butterfly in question is the Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia) and as I said it is a very rare beast.  Athalia can only be found in three areas of the Country, Blean Woods in Kent, some coombes (steep valleys) on Exmoor and here in sth Essex with Hockley Wood the biggest colony.  What makes this little (wingspan 1.5-2 inches 39-47mm) butterfly so rare is habitat.  The only food plant of the caterpillar is common cow-wheat and this will only thrive in regularly coppiced woodland.  The practice of coppicing is no longer a commercial activity so we are reliant on conservation bodies to carry out this work.

Caught in the spotlight. A Heath Fritillary in a sunlit glade

In all I saw about thirty individuals.  The males zig-zagging low over the clearings whilst the slightly larger females enjoyed a feed on the bramble flowers.  It was here I captured these images.  I thought it would be nice to try and show the butterfly as part of the scene as in the two shots above.  I still got the up close and personal images with the macro but with that type of photography you are limited by depth of field, so step back a bit, use the same lens to capture the fine detail and the results can be quite pleasing.

It’s difficult to get a clean background in a woodland setting so shots like this are a bonus

For more images from 2017 and this week take a look at this portfolio https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/portfolio/heath-fritillary-in-essex/



26 thoughts on “Hockley Wood’s Heath Fritillaries

    1. It’s always a slight worry you might not see your hoped for target, however be in the right place at the right time in good weather and all should be fine. I’m sure you would not have problems photographing them.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes Mike I do get about a bit when allowed! We had two trips planned that were twice as far but as we needed to stay overnight they are sadly cancelled (no overnight stays allowed).
      The Heath Frits were once feared they would become extinct in the UK but are just hanging on, some years they emerge in big numbers but habitat is the key and there is just not enough of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My Collins Butterfly book suggests they are all over Europe, so it’s strange they need such specific habitat in the UK. Is it because Europe is awash with common cow-wheat? (I’ve just looked that up and I have seen it around here, but it’s one of those rather ‘dull’ plants I’d normally not bother photographing – shame on me I know if it’s so crucial!)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think like a lot of species they are at their northern range and quite often those in the UK act different to their continental cousins. Here it’s all about keeping the habitat open correctly. They are awkward butterflies and wont move far, they used to be called the woodsman follower. On Exmoor it’s a matter of keeping the grazing regime right. If the cow-wheat dies out so do the Frits.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. What a lovely representative of the brushfoots! Your drive was definitely rewarded handsomely. Find the food plants in the right habitat. Easy-peasy. 🙂

    Very nice photographs, Brian! I really like the subject as part of its environment.

    Liked by 1 person

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