Gatekeeper or Meadow Brown?
This is the Gatekeeper Pyronia tithonus formerly and perhaps more appropriately known as the Hedge Brown or ‘Hedge Eye’. This butterfly can only be confused with a female Meadow Brown Maniola jurtina. However, in comparison it is much smaller and overall a much brighter orange. Where the Meadow Brown has one white spot in the centre of the black eye-spot on the upper wing, the Gatekeeper, as you can see, almost always has two. Also, with wings folded the Gatekeeper has a row of small white dots on its lower underwing, whereas the latter, if it has any, not all do, will have small dark dots. Plus, you are much more likely to find it like this, wings wide-open, basking on a leaf in a hedgerow soaking up the sun.
But beware, both species are subject to variation. I’ve seen Meadow Brown’s with two white spots and Gatekeeper’s with one. So it’s worth keeping a look out for aberrations. If you are lucky you may even find one of the heavily spotted multiocellata variations which can be very pretty indeed. Just remember to carry your camera, because of course I didn’t.
Down south it is reasonably common, particularly in Devon and Dorset. Here in south Wiltshire it’s been a frequent and welcome visitor to my garden in the past few weeks due to the warm weather. But the further north you go the scarcer it becomes as the cooler it gets. To thrive it needs warm springs and hot summers. The female pictured above is larger and duller than the smaller, brighter male, which in addition can be identified by the dark sex brands on the upper surface of its forewings.
The more observant amongst you may have noticed a small red dot on the left side of the head. This is the parasitic mite Trombidium breei. It’s not that easy to see at this resolution but there are another two. One just behind the one on the head and another half-hidden about half way down the right hand side of its furry body. As far as I can tell as long as the butterfly does not get overly infested they do not seem to cause any lasting harm.