I feel I should put a disclaimer on this blog post in that Hutchinson’s Bank is one of the nature reserves I work on as part of London Wildlife Trust’s Brilliant Butterflies project so I have an unshakeable fondness for the site and had already spent much time there before embarking on the 33 Butterflies Challenge.
Only two minutes from New Addington tram stop, Hutchinson’s Bank is one of the largest areas of chalk grassland in London and is a nationally important hotspot for butterflies, with around forty different species recorded on the site each year.
The tram stop entrance isn’t the most appealing, but don’t be put off. Improvements are underway to make this section of the site more attractive to visitors, including the recent installation of a chalk bank which will hopefully be alive with wildflowers and insects in a few years’ time.
The tree-lined path at the top of the site was frothy with hawthorn blossom that fluttered like confetti and coated the path. Vibrant nettles seemed to have grown a foot overnight narrowing the walkway and dappled sunlight filtered through the leaves creating the perfect conditions for several butterfly species. Male Orange-tips patrolled confidently back and forth in search of the far more timid females. Speckled Woods basked on sunny bramble leaves, rising territorially to see off any rivals before returning to the same spot. Male Brimstones fluttered along the path fringes, in flight they are easy to spot thanks to their hi-vis jackets but once settled their veined wings help them blend chameleon-like into the leafy surroundings.
The path winds on its wooded way for quite a while before a gateway to the left led out onto the grassland slopes which had remained hidden until then. The views from the top of the site are quite spectacular and looking out over the rolling hills and vales, it’s easy to forget you’re in Croydon. I headed down the slope and onto a concrete track, a remnant from planned building work in the area, that was thankfully halted after the Second World War. At the end of the track sits one of the most butterfly-rich areas of the site known as The Cutting. Steep, chalky banks covered in calcareous specialists such as Horseshoe Vetch and Kidney Vetch provide a warm, sheltered haven for feeding and breeding butterflies.
As I expected, there were several photographers clustered in The Cutting all pointing their foot-long lenses at the same patch of grass. This time of year (May-June) is celebrity-season at Hutchinson’s Bank as it has one of the only populations of Glanville Fritillary in the country, so people come from far and wide to catch a glimpse of these dainty rarities. The only British butterfly species to be named after a person, 17th-century Lepidopterist Eleanor Glanville, Glanvilles have delicate black and gold wing patterns that give them an almost stained-glass-like quality.
Small Heath and Common Blues also flitted around in large numbers but the photographers remained trained to the spot, snapping the female on the path from every which angle. Some of them had come from as far away as York so I could understand their desire for a perfect shot.
Leaving The Cutting behind, I continued onto the path bisecting the middle of the site known as the Nature Trail. A Green Hairstreak flew out jaggedly from the dogwood and some of the teddy bear-faced Herdwick sheep looked up expectantly from their paddock. Grazing has taken place on the site since the 1990s in order to control scrub growth and help with restoration of the chalk grassland.
At the far end of the site is a large area of bare chalk, some of it the result of recent excavations and the rest, an area scraped back several years ago which has now become species-rich grassland. On the established scrape, Dingy Skippers dart between yellow flower heads, often meeting and spiralling round each other high into the air before separating and returning to their jinking flight close to the ground. Amongst them I spot one of their cousins savouring the sunshine on a patch of bare ground, a Grizzled Skipper. Similar in size to the Dingys, they have a more intricate, chequerboard wing pattern and lay their eggs on members of the rose family including Wild Strawberry, Agrimony and Bramble. ‘Dingy and Grizzle’ - I always think they sound like a curmudgeonly old couple from Sesame Street so it was nice to see them out and about together rubbing along nicely.
This area of the site is also a particular favourite of the Small Blues and in a few weeks’ time, clusters of them will be seen jostling for space on lumps of chalk. The smallest of the British butterflies and nationally scarce, their larvae rely solely on Kidney Vetch which grows in abundance of Hutchinson’s Bank. No bigger than a fingernail several of them dashed around in one particular corner of the new scrape. While in flight, their silvery-grey underwings camouflaged well against the milky chalk so it was hard to keep track of them but once settled they would often slowly open their wings, revealing colours that range from slate-grey to deep denim blue.
Heading out through a kissing gate, a common lizard sunbathing on a fencepost eyed me suspiciously before skittering off. The Bridleway path onto which I emerged, winds along the bottom of the site with the grassland slopes on one side and a varied canopy of scrub and trees on the other. Several Brimstones were flouncing along ahead of me, and a couple of Peacocks criss-crossed the path, their dark form and powerful flight distinguishing them. Tiny in comparison to these two larger species, a Small Copper landed delicately on a tall blade of Sheep’s Fescue alongside the path. This dinky species is a real gem, the molten metallic sheen and delicate scalloped edges to its coppery wings make it a real joy to see and I spent several minutes watching it pirouette atop its fragile perch like one of those ballet dancers in an old-fashioned music box.
I never tire of visiting this site whether for work or pleasure and there really is always something new to see especially during the butterfly bonanza months of May to August. As I leave the site at the end of the Bridleway and wind my way back up a concrete track towards New Addington, I’m already thinking about which new butterfly species might have emerged by the time I visit next.