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Pony near Hampton Ridge
For comprehensive information about the New Forest National Park
For comprehensive information about the New Forest National Park

New Forest dragonflies and damselflies - an introduction

Beautiful demoiselle
Beautiful demoiselle

The New Forest is a wonderful place in which to find dragonflies and damselflies. In fact, it is one of the best in Britain - of the 36 or so, British species, around 75% can be found in the New Forest; including nationally scarce insects such as the appropriately named scarce blue-tailed damselfly, and also the southern and small red damselflies.

And with colours ranging from very pale blue, through red to black; transparent, delicately veined wings; and conspicuously varied behaviour; all are fascinating to watch for both casual interest and more serious study.

But first, what’s the difference between a dragonfly and a damselfly?

Well, for a start, dragonflies are relatively large, robust insects, whilst damselflies are more dainty creatures. Then large, compound dragonfly eyes are positioned fairly centrally on the head, and meet in the middle, whilst damselfly eyes are smaller, widely separated and positioned on the sides of the head. And finally, dragonfly wings when at rest are usually held outstretched, often at 90 degrees to the abdomen, but damselflies usually fold their wings back along the line of the abdomen.

However, both dragonflies and damselflies are nowadays often referred to collectively simply as dragonflies.

Typically on the wing from April until October, or maybe November in mild autumns, flight periods vary from species to species. The first of these insects to be seen is often the large red damselfly, whilst the late fliers are typically the larger dragonflies.

All are cold bloodied creatures that, unlike humans, for example, cannot maintain a constant body temperature, but need reasonably warm weather to raise their temperature sufficiently for flight.

Individual winged insects can live for two or three months, although for many, this phase of life is considerably shorter. In Britain’s relatively cool climate, none survive the winter as adults.

Contrary to old fashioned traditions, they are harmless to humans, although in days-gone-by dragonflies were known as horse-stingers, and damselflies as devil’s darning needles. But all are ferocious predators, highly skilled hunters that survive by preying on other insects chased down in flight, killed and eaten.

Many dragon and damselflies are also strongly territorial, vigorously defending their own, often quite small patch, and aggressively driving off intruders of the same and sometimes different species.

In the early stages of life, all are aquatic – first as eggs, then prolarva and finally as larva, so watery habitats are typically the best places to see the greatest number of species.

One, the aptly named, almost butterfly-like, beautiful demoiselle, is particularly associated with the fast flowing, gravel-bottomed New Forest streams, where it flies in company with kingfishers and, sad-to-say, provides a source of food for grey wagtails.

Others prefer stretches of open, still water, places such as Eyeworth Pond, Cadman’s Pool and Hatchet Pond, whilst yet more - the small red damselfly is a good example - can be found primarily around the New Forest valley mires and other similar boggy areas.

Pale blue male and golden-yellow female keeled skimmers are frequently encountered around heathland drainage channels, whilst a number of species habitually stray well away from water, and can often be watched patrolling woodland rides or foraging on the heaths - golden-ringed dragonflies and southern hawkers are prominent members of this group.

Golden-ringed dragonfly
Golden-ringed dragonfly

Dragonflies and damselflies, though, are often assigned to the ‘too difficult to identify’ category of wildlife, and consequently are largely ignored. But some, in fact, can be readily recognised - look out, for example, for the distinctive golden-ringed dragonfly, the beautiful demoiselle, the closely related banded demoiselle, the large red damselfly and the broad-bodied chaser.

Getting to know these provides immediate entry to the dragonfly world, at least as a partially informed observer, and by process of elimination, makes easier the task of identifying some of the more difficult species.  

Confident identification, though, often requires good, close views and reference to a pocket-sized field guide – A Guide to the Dragonflies of Great Britain, written and illustrated by Dan Powell, is a particularly good example.

Find out more about New Forest dragonflies and damselflies

Getting started

Some notable New Forest dragonflies and damselflies, and a glimpse at their life cycles

Mating, egg laying and aquatic life - a look into a secret world
Emergence from the depths - one of the wonders of nature
Broad-bodied chaser - a distinctive creature often seen on heathland
Common darter - a particularly late flyer
Golden-ringed dragonfly - large and strikingly marked
Large red damselfly - common and widespread
Small red damselfly - nationally, a very scarce damselfly
Southern damselfly - the New Forest is one of its national strongholds
White-legged damselfly - very locally distributed

New Forest Insects - a photographic guide

If you have an interest in New Forest insects - butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, beetles, bugs or just about anything else - look out for the photographic guide (published in May 2011) produced by local expert Paul Brock.

Look out, also, for Paul's new book, A Comprehensive Guide to the Insects of Britain and Ireland, which was published in spring 2014.

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New Forest ponies
New Forest ponies in the road
New Forest ponies, cattle, pigs, sheep and donkeys are a popular part of the New Forest scene, but in 2015, 55 were killed on the roads.
Always take care when driving
New Forest seasonal highlights
Lesser celandine blooms illuminate woodlands, and heathland edges.
Fallow deer remain in single sex herds, the bucks at this time always separate from the does.
Curlews return from the coast to breed in and around the New Forest's wetter areas.

Red admiral butterflies are increasingly seen on bright, sunny days.

Redstarts are amongst the first returning, long distant migrant birds that arrive in April.
Large red damselflies take to the wing, the first of many such species that will soon be seen in the New Forest.
Bluebells blossom, sometimes in good numbers in ungrazed woodlands.
Badger cubs first appear above ground towards the end of the month.
New Forest 'what's on' - a small
selection of local events and activities
March 2018
Saturday, 3rd - Lyndhurst Community Centre, New Forest Book Fair, 10.00am - 4.00pm.
Sunday, 11th March to Monday, 2nd April - Exbury Gardens, Lachenalia and Orchid Exhibition, 10.00am - 5.30pm (last admission 4.30pm).
Friday, 16th - Brockenhurst Village Hall, Film Night - Goodbye Christopher Robin (PG), 7.00pm - 10.30pm.
Saturday, 17th - Burley Village Hall, Burley Scouts' Quiz.

April 2018
Wednesday 4th and 11th - Wild Wednesday, New Forest Reptile Centre, 10.30am - 4.00pm.
Monday, 9th - Burley Village Hall, Film Night.
Thursday, 12th - Wild About Ponies, Bolton's Bench Car Park, 1.00pm - 2.00pm.
Sunday, 22nd - Exbury Gardens, Devoted to Dogs Day, 10.00am - 5.30pm.
For further details, view the full New Forest What's on programme.
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley
Content produced by Andrew Walmsley