Hairstreaks & Duke of Burgundy (Family Lycaenidae)

Descriptions & images of the 4 Hairstreaks resident in Hampshire and the Duke of Burgundy

Hairstreaks

The group of butterflies called the "Hairstreaks" also belong to the family Lycaenidae. There are just 5 species in UK of which 4 are resident in Hampshire. The Hairstreaks get their name from the fine white line or lines on the underside wings resembling a 'hairstreak'.  The Hairstreaks might be considered elusive butterflies in the sense that several of our species are not often seen, at least at close quarters, partly because they are uncommon and partly because they spend much of their time high up in the trees. However all offer the occasional chance of a closer encounter when they come down to seek nectar or in some cases to lay their eggs, which is then all the more rewarding for the observer.

Occurrence (distribution based on 1km squares) and abundance (total population) trend data, extracted from the report "The State Of The UK's Butterflies 2015" published by Butterfly Conservation, is shown for each species and indicates the change in distribution and population during the last four decades (1976 - 2014) at UK national level. 

All 4 species of hairstreak found in Hampshire have suffered significant declines in distribution, abundance or both, during the last four decades.

Brown Hairstreak - Thecla betulae 

Wingspan: ~35-45mm

 Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -49%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -15%

 

The Brown Hairstreak is one of our most attractive hairstreaks and also one of the least common, its numbers having declined as a result of habitat destruction and the loss of traditional species-rich hedgerows. Nationally it is locally distributed as far north as Lincolnshire, but is now confined to just two main locations in Hampshire. The Brown Hairstreak has very specific habitat requirements requiring a combination of mature trees, young blackthorn growing in hedgerows or amongst scrub, and flowers for nectar.

Adult Brown Hairstreaks spend much of their time high in the trees (usually ash trees) resting or feeding on aphid honeydew. Occasionally they will come down to feed on flowers such as bramble, hemp agrimony or thistles. The females descend to lay their eggs on blackthorn and can be easily overlooked when crawling deep inside blackthorn bushes looking for suitable egg laying sites. The Brown Hairstreak is a fascinating species, because of the elusive behaviour, rarity and attractive colouration - the females in particular are beautiful insects when freshly emerged, with bright orangy-brown underside, splashes of orange on the upperside forwings and prominent hindwing tails. The male colouration is less vivid on the underside and their tails are shorter. Despite their apparent reluctance to come down from the trees, Brown Hairstreaks can seem completely oblivious to the observer's presence when feeding and will sometimes allow a camera lens to be placed just a few inches away.

When to see: The Brown Hairstreak is our last hairstreak to emerge, the flight period normally commencing close to the end of July and lasting until mid-September

Where to see: The largest population of Brown Hairstreak in Hampshire is located in the Shipton Bellinger area in the far north-west of the county. The butterfly is also present in the Selborne area of East Hampshire, Noar Hill being a specific location to look for it. However the population there seems to have decreased in recent years and it can be difficult to find. Being an elusive species, the possibility exists of further undiscovered colonies.

Green Hairstreak - Callophrys rubi

Wingspan: ~27-35mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -30%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -41% 

 

The Green Hairstreak is the one UK hairstreak which is more likely to be encountered at close quarters, being found in woodland clearings, heathland, chalk downland and rough scrubby ground where there are plenty of bushes, such as hawthorn, gorse or broom. Its distribution in UK is widespread but patchy. The underside of the butterfly is almost completely green as shown above (and therefore perfect camouflage), the 'hairstreak' in this case being reduced to a row of white dots. The butterfly always rests with closed wings, the upperside being a uniform brown colour which is then only seen in flight. The butterflies (especially males) like to perch on their favourite shrub and can thus be disturbed as one walks past. The species uses a good variety of larval foodplants including bird's foot trefoil, rock-rose, gorse and dogwood.

When to see: One generation per year, from mid April until early June.

Where to see: The Green Hairstreak, although widespread, is not common and is usually encountered in small numbers - several on a single visit would be good count. Good sites include Magdalen Hill Down, Martin Down, Butser Hill (Rake Bottom) and Noar Hill. They are also reported every year from New Forest heaths where there are plenty of bushes, such as gorse.

Purple Hairstreak - Neozephyrus quercus

Wingspan: 32-38mm 

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -30%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -54% 

 

The scientific name for this species includes the word quercus which is Latin for oak - and it is flying around the higher foliage and the tops of oak trees, that one normally sees this species. It is quite common in the south of England and Midlands becoming scarcer northwards, being found in favoured oaks in mature woodlands, along roadsides and even in parkland. Nevertheless its distribution and abundance at a national level has suffered significantly in recent decades. The adult's habit of spending much time high up in the tree canopy, where they feed on honeydew, means they are often overlooked. The male has a beautiful purple sheen over much of the upper wing surfaces, whereas, in the female, the purple is confined to part of the forewing. The butterflies do occasionally descend individually to take nectar from bramble or thistles or bask on leaves, sometimes with open wings. It will be no surprise that oak leaves are the larval foodplant.

When to see: There is one generation per year, from early July though to late August

Where to see: The butterfly is quite widely distributed in the mature woodlands of the county, including the New Forest. Look high in the oak trees for silvery grey looking butterflies (from the underwing colour) with a jerky flight - and avoid neck-ache if you can! A good time of day to look for this species is late afternoon and even early evening on calm days when they will often take wing around their favourite oaks. Specific good sites include Alice Holt Forest (Straits Inclosure), Pamber Forest, Whiteley Pastures and the the Pondhead Inclosure in the New Forest. An interesting alternative to the main woodland sites is Browndown South (subject to MoD access restrictions) where they can often be seen in the stunted oak trees at eye level or below.  

White-letter Hairstreak - Satyrium w-album

Wingspan: ~25-35mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -45%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -96% 

 

The White-letter Hairstreak gets its name from the white letter 'W' clearly visible on the underside hindwing. The butterfly is considered uncommon, having declined significantly in distribution and abundance in recent decades, but it is locally distributed in England and Eastern Wales. The White-letter Hairstreak is not a very conspicuous species, partly because of its absolute dependance on Elm trees (which have been ravaged by Dutch Elm disease) and partly because of its elusive habits, the adults spending most of their time in the tree-tops. Colonies exist not only in rural locations, such as on Elms in woodland locations or hedgerows (down to single isolated Elm trees or sucker growth), but also where Elms survive in towns and even the suburbs of large cities. The butterflies do occasionally come down to take nectar, for instance from bramble, privet or thistles. They tend to disperse later in the flight period, so may turn up some way from their host trees. The female has the more pronounced 'W' marking and longer delicate tails on the hind wing (see female photo above) which can soon become damaged.

When to see: The flight period typically begins towards the end of June and lasts until late July, although the best time to see them in their Elm tree colonies is between late June and mid July.

Where to see: The butterfly, because of its elusive habits, may be more widely distributed in Hampshire than is evident from records. They are unpredictable, but mid-morning and again mid/late afternoon seem to be good times to see them flitting around at the tops of Elm trees. Most reports of the species being observed nectaring low down seem to be during the afternoon, and occasionally early evening. There are  good colonies of White-letter Hairstreak on Elms on Stockbridge Down (see site feature),  on the Small-leaved Elms on Peartree Common in Woolston and a small colony in Bentley Wood (see site feature). There are also colonies in East Gosport and in Cosham (possible access restrictions). 


Duke Of Burgundy

The Duke of Burgundy also belongs to the family Lycaenidae, but to a different subfamily, and one which is commonly referred to as the 'metalmarks' because of the metal-like resemblance of the wings in some species. The metalmarks are mainly found in tropical climates in South and Central America. The Duke of Burgundy is the only representative of this subfamily in Europe (and UK) and is described below.

Duke Of Burgundy - Hamearis lucina

Wingspan: 29-35mm

Distribution change 1976 - 2014: -84%, Population change 1976 - 2014: -42% 

 

The Duke of Burgundy is a small but very active spring butterfly, found mainly in areas of chalk scrub or downland where there is some taller vegetation and a plentiful supply of cowslips or primroses which are the larval foodplants. It is however, another species which has declined significantly in both distribution and abundance at national level in the last four decades, although most recent data suggests the decline may have been halted in some areas, with modest increases in the size of some colonies. Formerly the species was not an unusual sight in primrose rich woodland clearings, but few such woodland colonies remain now. The males are very territorial and like to perch, looking out for females or to chase off competing males, when they will spiral up in the air together in an aerial duel.

When to see: The Duke of Burgundy is an early species to emerge, typically from mid-April but the season is quite short, lasting usually until late May.

Where to see: In Hampshire Noar Hill is a good site and often the earliest to report emergence, however numbers can be modest (i.e. a few sightings typically, perhaps double figures in good years). Butser Hill (Rake Bottom and West Butser) are also good locations but the species usually emerges there in late April/early May. There are normally a few sightings each year from Bentley Wood (Eastern Clearing) but woodland colonies tend to emerge at least a week later than their downland cousins.