Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Look out for the ring bearer

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Ringlet butterfly, photo by David North
"Three Rings for the Elven-Kings under the sky,
Seven for the dwarf –lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One Ring to rule them, One Ring to find them"

JRR Tolkien The Lord of the Rings

A touch of magic is being brought to my local walks by a ring-bearer. This ‘lord of the rings’ is the ringlet butterfly which at this time of year may well be Norfolk’s commonest butterfly. Have you seen a dark chocolate coloured butterfly fluttering over tall grasses? Look anywhere where rough grasses grow tall and flower. Along grassy roadside verges, supping nectar from bramble flowers, dancing along the edges of ripening wheat and barley fields, just now this ring-bearer is not hard to find.

Like many butterflies most of the ringlet’s life is spent as a caterpillar. The caterpillars live for 11 months and most adults probably for just two weeks. So catch them while you can. July is the best month to enjoy this butterfly. Unlike most butterflies, the caterpillars are most active by night. They climb grass stems of cocksfoot, tufted hair-grass, couch and annual meadow grass and feed under moonlight hiding invisible in the base of grass clumps by day. Any chance disturbance by night and the caterpillar simple lets go tumbling to the safety of a hidden grassy world.

Photo by David North
Ringlets, like all good ring-bearers, keep their golden rings well hidden. With wings open this butterfly could even be described as drab, being a plain dark brown above. It’s the undersides of its closed wings that hold its golden rings, each yellow gold ring encircling a black eye with a spot of white at its centre. How many rings? Well this depends on how this shape-shifter holds its wings. My best count was eight rings. The books usually say seven. Though the ringlet often casts a cloak of invisibility over its gold and many times closed wings reveal just five or six rings.

Several other butterflies are ring-bearers. The speckled woods that dance along woodland glades and shady hedges also carry handsome golden-yellow rings – six along the hind edge of the open hind-wings.

So next time you see a ringlet count its rings – seven or eight gold rings for the ringlets in their grassy lands, five rings for the speckled woods that dance in woodland glades and one ring for the... Well some things are best left a mystery!

Enjoy these sunny, summer butterfly days while they last and see if you can beat my count of eight gold rings!

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