Butterflies with their captivating, intricate wings continually dazzle the world, and the UK’s largest home of the beautiful insect is right on our doorstep at Stratford-upon-Avon Butterfly Farm. The unique attraction, spread over three greenhouses, features a free-flight area where the public can watch over 300 different species of butterflies feeding, flying and even hatching into multicolored pupae in the discovery area.
In addition to housing around 2,000 butterflies and moths at a time, the farm also has two rescue iguanas named Prudence and Bennie, tropical birds, a koi pond and a minibeast metropolis filled with spiders, snakes, cockroaches, lizards and his own colony of leafcutter ants among other animals. It all exists thanks to the dream of owner Clive Farrell over 30 years ago.
He wanted to create an attraction that introduces people to the fascination of butterflies after he himself caught the “bug” after finding a caterpillar in his garden that eventually hatched into a tiger butterfly when he was five years old. That dream came true on July 24, 1985, when Stratford-upon-Avon Butterfly Farm opened its doors to the public with an official opening ceremony attended by botanist and naturalist David Bellamy OBE.
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Since then the attraction has welcomed thousands of visitors, started exporting its own pupae from the farm as well as importing breeds to hatch and display, and Farrell has also opened sister site Fallen Stones Butterfly Farm in Belize in 1991. The Belize farm is operated as a nature reserve that supports local employment without negatively impacting the local environment and hosts a very successful breeding program that ships pupae around the world.
To keep it all running smoothly, there’s a dedicated team behind the scenes tending to all the animals and ticking off a long list of daily tasks to ensure the ship sails smoothly. Richard Douglas-Read, horticulture manager at Stratford-upon-Avon Butterfly Farm, says the average day for field staff begins with ensuring the site is ready for visitors.
“The day usually starts with sweeping the walkways and watering the plants,” he says. “Then we go around and fill the feeders with sugar and nectar and prepare the food for the fruit table ready for the butterflies.
“Butterflies prefer rotten fruit to fresh fruit, so we tend to only have to prepare fruit once a week, sometimes twice if the iguanas and birds pick it up. The sugar feeders which we fill two or three times a day, more so in the summer.
Throughout the day, Richard and the team must keep the attraction’s heat and humidity at a constant high level to replicate the tropical environment of butterflies in the wild and ensure that any newly hatched can correctly spread its wings.
“Throughout the day we have to keep an eye on the temperatures. We have two heaters installed on the farm which are both set to 26.5 degrees at all times,” Richard told me. “As far as humidity is concerned, to maintain this constant, we water the tracks. If the beds do not need to be watered, we simply water the foliage to maintain humidity and we do this once or twice a day in the summer.
“When it comes to the emergence of a butterfly emerging from the pupae, humidity is important because if it’s not moist enough, its wings won’t expand and it won’t be able to fly.”
The farm is home to hundreds of butterfly species that visitors can marvel at, including a self-sustaining population of caligo, morpho, siproeta, draconius, and more. The breeding program began due to the difficulty of shipping Heliconius pupae due to their delicate nature and has enabled the farm to supply the UK market with a variety of breeds.
The pupae they raise themselves or buy from dealers are kept in the farm’s display case where visitors can watch butterflies spring from their pupae before their eyes. The showcase is located in the Discovery Zone, where visitors can see the full life cycle of a butterfly with hard-to-spot caterpillars munching on leaves.
“The pupae are glued to a stick with a rubber-based glue as they would be in the wild – although in the wild it’s caterpillar spit,” Richard said. “They are then hung upside down in the cage on a capillary mat which is wetted two or three times a day.
“We maintain a constant high humidity and the temperature is maintained through a heater so that they emerge in a very humid environment.”
As well as hundreds of different butterflies to gaze at, there are also hundreds of plant species to admire in the inner jungle chosen by Richard. A fourth-generation horticulturist with a lifelong interest in plants, he described his position after believing he would never work in the field without a formal qualification.
He started working for the farm in 2019 and came to the position with a vast underlying knowledge of tropical plants.
“I choose plants purely based on aesthetics for the jungle feel, but we also need larval hosts and nectariferous plants, so it’s not just structural and architectural plants,” he said. -he declares. “Butterflies taste with their feet to decide where to lay their eggs. There are so many different species of larval hosts and nectariferous plants that we need.
“There are 300 different species of butterflies here, which means we also have 300 different host plants, most of which come from deep within the tropics. One of the biggest and most time-consuming jobs for me behind the scenes is to cultivate the plants. , especially for the caterpillars which are really voracious eaters.
“One of the most difficult tasks is biological pest control. A stressed plant will be attacked by pests such as scale insects and whiteflies, so a butterfly will be less likely to lay its eggs on that plant because the likelihood of its larvae getting food is slim.
Despite a variety of different needs – including each species having a specific taste for individual larval host plants to lay their eggs – Richard describes butterflies as low maintenance.
“Give them a good tropical environment and they’ll all be pretty happy and easy-going,” he said. “Heliconius are probably among the most difficult to care for simply because the pupae are so delicate.
“My favorite species is the caligo, simply because it’s so big and brash. They are forest species, so they fly low on the forest floor when it starts to get dark.
“Whenever it’s dark here you can see them chasing each other through the farm trails and it’s quite entertaining.”
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