A little piece of grassland paradise

Length of walk: approx. 1 hour Start location: TF235829 (Donington-on-Bain church)

The joy of butterflies is not only to be found in specially managed nature reserves, but also in the wider countryside.   Although it is unlikely that rarer species will be spotted, it is one of life’s pleasures to witness clouds of common grassland species in the summer.  This circular walk offers that opportunity.  It is a lovely walk for dogs on leads and children, but unfortunately not suitable for wheelchairs or pushchairs due to stiles and narrow paths.

Starting in the village of Donington-on-Bain walk down Chapel Lane (opposite the Black Horse pub). Ignore the first footpath sign pointing right and instead carry straight on, then bear left (signposted).  Turn right next to a large lime tree (signposted) and then you’re on your way!  Once out of the village area the path is clearly marked all the way.  The landscape opens out to rolling grassy fields, with the first banked area to the right studded with Harebells in July.  A large amount of Sheep’s sorrel grows here – the foodplant for the Small Copper, so expect to see the feisty little butterflies patrolling their small territories.

As you cross the wooden bridge the River Bain flows underneath you.  Look out for the stunning Banded Demoiselle damselflies that fly here, and possibly take the opportunity for a game of Pooh sticks!

As you cross the wooden bridge the River Bain flows underneath you. Look out for the stunning Banded Demoiselle damselflies that fly here, and possibly take the opportunity for a game of Pooh sticks!

Walking through the riverside meadow there is a fabulous display of Southern Marsh orchids in June, followed by statuesque Marsh Thistles in July. Meadow Browns and 6-spot Burnet moths crowd on to the thistle flowers, whilst Ringlets flit about in the lower storey of Red Clover and Hawkbits. Mother Shipton and Latticed Heath moths are to be seen here, together with large numbers of the Small and Essex Skippers.

Walk up the slope and over the stile out of the riverside meadow and you come to a crossroads of footpaths.

Want to extend the walk? To extend the walk slightly turn left to drop down and look at Benniworth Haven. This is an old fishing lake, popular with tourists when the railway was operational here. Now it is a tranquil place and home to many species of dragon and damselflies.

If not extending the walk turn right and continue along the bridleway. There is a small coppice of trees on your left which when it ends changes to a hay meadow. Conditions here are drier than the previous meadow, resulting in a different floral mix and the addition of Small Heath to the butterfly species list. Grasshoppers abound here – on a hot day the noise can be incredible. Follow the signs to go through the metal gate. Creeping Thistle and Nettles in the sunny farmyard area are perfect for Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Painted Ladies to lay their eggs on. There are also good numbers of Chimney Sweeper moths on this part of the walk, plus the white butterflies: Large, Small and Green-veined.

With the brick farmhouse on your left-hand side, turn right – check the oak tree for Purple Hairstreaks in July/August. As you descend into a shadier alder and willow area Speckled Wood are likely to be seen. The clear pool under the bridge is suitable for water vole – you might be very lucky, but there is probably too much disturbance from dogs to be a realistic goal.

The path winds its way back to the village, with Post and Pantry in front of you offering a pot of tea and piece of cake on the picnic tables. What more could you want?

A chalk downland where the Marbled White flies...

One site I make an annual pilgrimage to each July is the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust reserve at Red Hill in the Lincolnshire Wolds. It is past mid-summer when the blues, mauves and purples of knapweeds and scabious are at their best as they stand proud of a frothy white understory of Burnet Saxifrage or are sometimes suffused with honey-scented golden flushes of Lady’s Bedstraw.

This reserve includes a steep escarpment of iron-stained chalk which gives the site its name. The 3 hectares of escarpment, associated old plateau grassland and abandoned lime quarry as well as the neighbouring road verges are collectively designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for their hugely important chalk grassland wildlife. This is a county treasure in itself; but the reserve was extended by restoring adjacent arable land in the mid-1990s. Hay was taken from the original site and used to seed a further 24 hectares which had previously been growing barley. In 2013, the extension was named as one of the 60 Coronation Meadows across the UK to mark the 60th anniversary of The Queen's Coronation and is now a fine example of lowland chalk downland in the East Midlands. Not only that, but the Coronation Meadow is a shining example of what is possible if we want to reverse the loss of wildflower-rich and butterfly-rich grassland across the county and nationally.

So far, 25 moths and 26 butterfly species have been recorded at Red Hill. The earliest record is for the Marbled White in 1901. The early morning of a still day is the best time to see this species at rest, sunning its open wings. Popular nectar sources include Greater Knapweed, Common Knapweed, Field Scabious, Small Scabious and Devils-bit Scabious which offer a sugary banquet for the Marbled White’s lengthy proboscis. Being a member of the Satyrinae or ‘Browns,’ the primary foodplants for the Marbled White caterpillars include several species of common grass including both Tor Grass and Red Fescue which are both abundant at this location. Instead of laying eggs on carefully selected larval foodplants, the adult females will simply drop eggs while in flight over suitable habitat. The first instar of the caterpillar eats only its egg when it emerges before seeking shelter deep in the tussocks of grass to hibernate over winter. Re-emerging in spring, the larvae go through four instars before pupating from mid-May at ground level for about 3 weeks.

The emergence of adults can be as early as early June which can persist until late July. The female with browner markings on the underside is easily distinguished from the darker veination of the male – both evocative of gothic leaded glass. For me they are the spirit of the downland at Red Hill.

This butterfly has extended its national range over recent years and is not currently a species of conservation concern in the UK.

For more information about Red Hill and where to find it, you can visit the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust website. You can also view a video which tells the story of the Coronation Meadow.