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Peacock butterflies in the walled garden

Did you see any Peacock butterflies in the walled garden over the last month? Learn more about the butterflies with Garden apprentice, Annette Foerger.

A couple of weeks ago, the gardening team got very excited when during a team walkabout to discuss upcoming tasks, we suddenly discovered a web of black caterpillars on a patch of nettles in our woodland area. Could these be…..? Some quick checks on our phones soon confirmed that – yes! – these were without doubt caterpillars of the beautiful peacock butterfly!

The reason for our pleasure and excitement was that the existence of these caterpillars on the Fulham Palace site is a definite sign that the strategies we have been employing to increase biodiversity in the gardens are starting to pay off!

The peacock butterfly (Inachis io) uses stinging nettles as a host plant for its caterpillars, so this find shows us that we are doing the right thing by leaving some areas of the gardens wild, allowing nettles and other wild plants to grow and provide food and shelter for many insects and other creatures.

The female butterflies lay their eggs in May/June onto nettle plants, where, after a couple of weeks, the caterpillars emerge. They spin a communal web and start feeding on the nettles, leaving the protective web as they grow bigger. The caterpillars look quite distinctive – black, with short spines and speckled with small white spots. You can tell the caterpillars are preparing to pupate as soon as you spot them hanging from the underside of the nettle leaves in a kind of “J” shape. The chrysalis also hangs on the leaf underside and is very well camouflaged – initially yellow-green and with small spikes on one side, it looks very much like a slightly distorted nettle leaf. It changes gradually to a brownish colour, with lovely sparks of gold shimmering through.

We have spotted the first chrysalises some days ago, and should therefore also see the butterflies around the gardens hopefully very soon! The peacock butterfly has brownish-red wings with a wingspan of about 6cm, each with a single, large eyespot (called ocelli), very much like a peacock feather, to scare away predators. When they emerge, they make good use of the warm summer weather to feed upon nectar, as they go into hibernation early, sometimes already in August. Their favourite spots to hibernate are dark and cool but frost-free outbuildings or hollow tree trunks and crevices. With their wings folded, the butterflies are hardly visible when in hibernation.

Chatting to our butterfly specialist Joe Beale about our discovery, he told me that when a peacock butterfly is disturbed by a rodent (who like them as a snack in winter), it rubs its wings together, making a sharp hissing noise. This usually startles the predator, giving the butterfly a chance for escape. Joe is equally pleased about our find and agrees it is a very good sign that this distinctive and beautiful butterfly species have started breeding at Fulham Palace and can stand as a symbol for the increasing success of our biodiversity policy!