All posts by Matthew

Poems

My poems mostly concern the natural world, and our relationships with it.  They are also often concerned with time, perhaps because I am not really of today, but of yesterday and tomorrow.

My poetry largely writes itself – it takes me over.  Perhaps I am being used. Most poems are written outdoors, in special places – perhaps by the places themselves.  Perhaps some places are poets, they dictate to us?

I am not a competition poet, am scarcely a modern poet, and seldom seek to publish my poems in mainstream poetry volumes.

It would be daft to even dream about making a penny out of them.

If you don’t like them: print them out, and light a fire with them; and blame it on my old school, Christ’s Hospital, and on an inspirational English scholar, Peter J Cornish, who taught there, brilliantly, from 1969 to 1971.

I belong to a poetry group, Brokenborough Poets, which meets monthly in The Horse Guards at Brokenborough, an aimless village near Malmesbury in north Wiltshire.  We comment constructively on each other’s poems.  There are currently eight members (Sue Chadd, our leader, and John Richardson, Phil Kirby, Atherton Gray, David Lukens, Liz Carew and MM Season).  We have recently published Fieldwork, an anthology (ISBN 978-1-326-37759-5).

If I ever publish my own collection, it is likely to open with Drunkards Corner, below, which wrote itself, bar subsequent fine-tunings, one midsummer day along the old drove road that curls round the south-east corner of the main block of the Bernwood Forest, an ancient forest north of Oxford, before petering out into a cattle grazed meadow.  It is a locality for the rare Black Hairstreak butterfly, which breeds in the Blackthorn jungles that crowd the rutted lane.

For many years, decades even, a rickety wooded gate led into the buttercup meadow, bearing a hand painted notice, in peeling  red on a piece of rusty old tin.  Recently, the gate has been replaced with one of Defra’s countryside stewardship metal gates, which clangs urbanely.  I am unlikely to visit Drunkards Corner again.

Drunkards Corner

Here is a place outside of ordered time,

Where the same cows graze the clay mead,

And light spindles soft along a stippled lane

As if, perhaps, it has always rested so,

Filtered by ever-ancient blackthorn boughs

That tunnel haphazard over age itself,

Through summer, once more, and on again.

 

I cannot say how this lonely place

Took its name, a name of man,

For no man comes here, drunk or not,

No singer staggers along the ruts,

In time of slipping mud or kicking dust,

On Midsummer or on any other eve.

 

One act, or one man, long ago aroused this name,

And so it has ever rested so, and ever always will.

But here, still now, amongst the brambled tangles

A whitethroat scratches his rusty song,

While an ancient peeling notice reads and pleads:

‘Please close the gate’, the gate that leads to time.

 

The next poem is my latest, Winter’s Grave.  It wrote itself one wet January day in 2016 on the edge of Hailey Wood, a tract of ancient woodland near Cirencester in the Cotswolds.  Hailey is an ethereal place; many of my poems are written there – not by me, I suspect, but by Hailey.  It takes me over.

Winter’s Grave

I may come back this way,

Past the hulk of a dead tree

That leans, bookishly,

Under an incessancy of rain;

Past ashes that drip ceaselessly

Through drab January days.

 

I may pause as a moment stills

Itself in some perpetual longing

For a wakefulness not come,

As a squall blows itself by;

And shelter leeward there awhile

To touch the first primrose bloom.

 

Then shall I dream, alone,

The spring, in its eternity,

As drifts of blossom fully spent;

Where once, as January paled,

A line of berried yew trees bled

The way to dismal winter’s grave.

(Copyright, Matthew Oates. Jan 2016)

 

I wanted to use the term ‘incessancy of rain’, inspired by the excessive rains of December 2015 and early January 2016.  If you want to know what the poem’s about, visit Hailey and ask her; but note that only the wood’s western half is poetic – the eastern half has been penetrated by dog walkers and sulks.

 

The following are the first and seventh stanzas of a pig of a poem, Simulacra (Latin, Likenesses), a bitter meditation on unrequited love, set in the poignant autumn of 1975, which followed and destroyed a great summer.  There are nine stanzas.  It ain’t nice.

Simulacra

You were the endless summer’s ending,

You were its shimmering autumn fall,

Beginning on a bronze September day,

When sunlight pledged eternity

Beyond the pale transience of spring

That ends so deadened by the rain,

The cold embittered autumn rain

That blows before the emptying of time,

Gathered from the lifeless, deathless

Windblown waves that rage on wintry seas.

Magenta the spindle, in a vacant autumn lane,

Breaks to reveal an orange-tongued heart;

Rose-red the sunset, as love alone lies down,

Blood red, the rosehip heralds October dawn.

 

Fall through me then, you maelstrom leaves,

Drift as fire-filled flies that, without knowing,

Have lost the souls they once possessed;

Be scattered by the burnished autumn winds,

To litter and bedeck the woodland floor

With sullen corpses, glorifying death,

Rotting in the rains of cussed winter;

To be engorged, by sightless, mindless worms,

Till all vestige of summer fades beyond recall;

That others may be born, not again, but once,

To live and love and then be felt no more.

Muddied, the sombre waste of trampled leaves,

Bloodied, the vestiges of passions that have fled,

Bereft of colour, the soul’s own no-man’s land;

Impassioned red, the lost rose of summer gone. 

 

I told you it wasn’t nice.  The whole poem is orders of magnitude more nasty. Burn it, it burnt me.

 

Others may follow.  The above is a taster, a starter pack.

In Pursuit of 2014 – the Dream Continues

2014 had the chance to build on the greatness that developed during 2013.  It got off to the worst possible start, with a westerly gale on New Year’s Day which fooled us into thinking that the year was going to get its worst over early.

Things worsened steadily, with a run of exploding depressions, gales, sou’westers, northwesters, attempted hurricanes and what the weather people now call weather bombs.  They were lining up in sequence, one after the other, rampaging over southern England.  The Somerset Levels received most media attention, simply because a TV camera could easily obtain spectacular footage of vast acreages of flooded fields from the top of Burrow Mump (a bump in the Levels owned by the National Trust), and pan in on 40-odd flooded homes.  The fact that more homes were flooded in Basingstoke that on the Levels was never mentioned.  The extent of house flooding in the lower Thames Valley was also scantily passed over.  This was the winter of the Somerset Levels floods, not least because a weather station there recorded 230mm of rain there between December 13th and January 12th.

The storms were awesome.  Aberystwyth sea front got pulverised, a sea arch collapsed at Porthcowan in Cornwall, a stack disappeared off Portland, and the pepper pot off Shippards Point in Glanville Fritillary country on the Isle of Wight coast vanished without trace.  Chesil Beach was overtopped and flattened.  January was the wettest on record for England and Wales, and mild and windy too.  February worsened things, with a vicious gale on the 5th and another on the 12th.  The most serious gale, though, occurred on Valentine’s Day.  This washed away a section of the West Country railway line at Dawlish on the South Devon coast, cutting off rail links with Plymouth and Cornwall.  At that point some 6000 homes were flooded.  The final gale occurred at the end of February, but by then there was little left to damage.  I was in Aberdaron on the Llyn peninsula, deep in the heart of RS Thomas country – and most of the tombstones in the cliff-side graveyard there had been blown over (Thomas would have loved it – ditto Dyan, ditto Edward – so all three Thomases would have loved it).  It was obvious that 2014 was not going to be a nice year.

I had located and marked out 63 hibernating Purple Emperor larvae in Savernake Forest, in deepest Wiltshire.  That proved far too ambitious a sample, especially when some of my markers were blown away in the gales.  Worse, the winter proved too mild for full hibernation, so that at least a quarter of the larvae woke up and moved position, wandering as far as 2m.  Prior to the 2013-14 winter I had recorded only three larvae wake up and move position in four winters.  This time, they woke up and went walkabout big time.  Worst of all, they were so numerous that the titmice got their beady eye in on them, and plundered them mercilessly.  By the end of the winter only 17 larvae remained, and I wanted every tit in Britain shot.

Rant.  Ban grouse and pheasant shooting, replace with tit shooting, using dust shot. Have crack squads of tanked-up toffs patrolling every Purple Emperor wood in winter, blasting out tit flocks and tit nest boxes.  Etc.

The gales felled several of Savernake’s giant beeches, and also some of its veteran sallows.  That provided opportunities to search for Purple Emperor larvae on windblown sallows.  Incredibly, they do not fall off, even when hibernating 15m up on a sallow which was vertical one moment and horizontal the next.  This was also demonstrated when the Forestry Commission bulldozed one tall sallow away – the caterpillar I was following on it, some 5m up, carried out regardless – only to be eaten by a ravenous tit in March.

In the midst of all this mayhem, the first butterfly of the year appeared – a Comma, basking in an oak-lined glade whilst I was searching for White Admiral larvae in the Straits Inclosure of Alice Holt Forest in mid-February.  Oddly, this was only the third time I’d opened the butterfly season with a Comma, after 1975 and 1987.  Commas are not early risers from hibernation.

Other caterpillars inhabit the garden, as TS Eliot might have written.  In mid-March I enjoyed a magical hour and a bit searching for Heath Fritillary larvae in one of the combes radiating off Dunkery Beacon on Exmoor.  They were just out of hibernation, basking on dead Bracken fronds as the day warmed up, before retreating when the sun became too hot.  Their main problem was that their foodplant was scarcely showing – this is the only British butterfly to breed on an annual plant, Common Cow-wheat, the seeds of which begins to germinate in mid-March.  I returned to the spot in mid-May and found that they’d eaten out that cow-wheat patch, but a posse of them had wandered 6m downslope to a fresh patch, and were well into their final instar.

HF 2 larvae Halse Combe 10.3.14 - CopyTiny Heath Fritillary larvae basking in mid-March sunshine

HF L on CW Halse Combe 14.5.14 - CopyFull grown larva feeding on Common Cow-wheat, Halse Combe, 15th May 2014

March and April were good, though the jet stream jumped south at the end of April, trashing a most promising spring.  This time belonged to the Green Hairstreak, which emerged in excellent numbers on the steep slopes of Rodborough Common in the Costa del Cotswolds.  I saw the first there on March 30th.  This was the third time I’d recorded Green Hairstreak there in March, and was actually the first recorded anywhere in 2014.  Curiously, the Cotswolds specialises in early Green Hairstreaks, though it does not have a reputation from producing early appearances of other spring butterflies – just Green Hairstreaks, and later on, Large Skippers and Marbled Whites.  On Rodborough, males perch on the low Holm Oak bushes that litter the lower slopes, and behave despicably – invading each other’s bushes and moving on from bush to bush, causing chaos.  You can sex Green Hairstreaks purely on behaviour, long before the female you were watching lays an egg in front of your eyes.

GH m VG Rodboro 15.4.15 - CopyVicious little thug, a Rodborough male Green Hairstreak

May was mixed, very mixed, and typical of modern Mays.  A really good week mid-month redeemed it, and enabled the Duke of Burgundy to flourish briefly but soundly, and the Pearl-bordered Fritillaries to do their thing.  Then, yet again, the last week of May – one of the key weeks of the butterfly season – was Vile, and I mean Vile.  I got fed up and journeyed up north, dumping the grotty weather in a layby on the Lancashire – Yorkshire border.  There it could be endlessly squabbled over by rival local groups, who habitually lob black puddings and Yorkshire puddings at each other – something like that.

I visited a madly atypical Duke of Burgundy site on the fells above Newby Bridge in south Cumbria, with Martin Wain of Butterfly Conservation.   This is a unique Duke of Burgundy site, 200m up on the edge of an acidic mire bordered by bracken.  The butterfly is breeding on primrose patches amongst Purple Moor Grass along the edge of base-rich flushes bordered by dense bracken stands.  The primroses are in a remarkably stable habitat, in a narrow belt between the mire edge and bracken, alongside Devil’s Bit Scabious and Marsh Violet.  The site has not been grazed for decades – though the estate torched the bracken and rank heather in March 2012 to control heather beetle.  Mercifully, the crucial mire edges didn’t burn, or the butterfly might have been lost.  By Burgundy standards this is a remarkably stable habitat.  Neither the bracken nor the Purple Moor Grass can pose any real threat to the butterfly and its primulas, because primulas are occurring in a narrow linear zone too wet for bracken.  The site is surprisingly well sheltered, with good topographical and woodland edge shelter, though with a westerly aspect.  The population was only discovered, by accident, in 2010 or 2009.  What a find, which begs the question of what else awaits our discovery in far-flung places?

High Dam 4 Cumbria 30.5.14 - Copy

It is not the sort of terrain one would search for butterflies, let alone one as fastidious as the Duke of Burgundy.  The population is a terribly isolated remnant.  Imagine this: upland Burgundies, the last vestiges of a hardy upland northern race.

Diary, Sunday June 1st –  Off to a flyer: A pleasant early summer day, with long periods of full sun or very bright conditions and never dull.  23C.  L W.                                       Meathop Moss, Witherslack.  S Cumbria.  9.30-10.30   The place called me in, though I knew it was at least a week too early for Large Heath, as the butterfly season is by no means early up here.  Instead, numerous Common Heath moths were doing almost exactly the same thing – bumbling ceaselessly and aimlessly over the bog, suddenly landing for no apparent reason other than randomness.  They were most endearing, a promise of things to come – the Large Heath season.  I need to return, though the spirit of the place has been diminished by the roar of traffic (even early on a Sunday) from the nearby A590, now that the protecting fringe of dense scots pines along the reserve’s northern edge has been all but removed in the name of nature conservation.

The only butterfly I saw here was an old Green Hairstreak, indicating that my visit took place in the gap between the Green Hairstreak and the Large Heath seasons, the former having been blasted away by poor weather.

There were no butterflies in the meadow leading to the reserve, from the east.  The Wildlife Trust has recently created large scrapes here, so it’s no longer a butterfly meadow.  This is the fourth incarnation of this meadow I’ve known: buttercup meadow, improved silage field, buttercup meadow mark 2, and now birdy scrapes.

Tree Pipit of the Year 2014 was awarded to the male singing from a retained dead pine near the start of the boardwalk, and I managed to eat an early cranberry.  Meathop, I love you, you’re out of sight.

On the way home I called in at Warton Crag, a largely wooded limestone crag system above the uniform greyness that is Carnforth.  There I saw the first Northern Brown Argus of the year, three of them, males, squabbling over the possession of a flowery dell.  These proved to be the first recorded in the UK that year, and were incongruously recorded by a wandering entomologist from the south.

Back in Savernake Forest, in early June, I had a meeting with a remarkable caterpillar (as in Meetings With Remarkable Caterpillars, an uncommissioned though staggeringly fascinating TV series) – Purple Emperor of course.  Caterpillar No 198 had first been found on November 10th 2013, about to enter hibernation.  He then thought about hibernating in a small branch fork over half a metre away, but soon moved further up-branch to hibernate on the underside of a fork.  He came out of hibernation at the end of March, and started to feed up on terminal leaf sprays some 4m away.  By June 3rd he was fully grown (and revealed himself to be a he, for I can sex full-grown Purple Emperor larvae), and was wandering off to pupate.  I watched him for over an hour, during which time he covered 13m of the branch system of an ancient sallow, including assorted U-turns and meanderings.  He was heading up-tree.  After rejecting the undersides of half a dozen leaves, he eventually decided on the underside of the seventh leaf, some 5m up.  That’s it, I thought, he’s going to pupate there – and left him to it, for it was then 9pm.  I never saw the blighter again, and strongly suspect that he continued his journey onward and upward the following day.

PE L Sav 198 2 Crawling on pupate 3.6.14 - Copy

June steadied the ship.  White-letter Hairstreaks appeared mid-month – I saw one wandering through the National Trust gardens at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire on the 12th.  That weekend the Norfolk Broads proved alive with batches of Peacock larvae – I counted 120 webs in the 65 minutes it took me to walk along the mile long track that skirts Butterfly Conservation’s ecstatically wonderful reserve at Catfield Fen.  The Peacock would take over the Broads come late July.  A black Labrador adopted me and escorted me along the track towards the River Ant, then left me alone with a posse of wild and dangerous Swallowtail males – not another fool after blooming Swallowtails, he must have thought.  I loved that dog.  Catfield leapt to greet me, but the Swallowtail did not: I think I’ve become too Purple for this mighty and haughty butterfly.

It was apparent that June was going to provide the most memorable experiences of the butterflying year.  It did so in Heddon Valley on the North Devon coast, a piece of Eden which didn’t fall from grace when Satan tempted Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit.  The steep Bracken slopes that punctuate this Sessile Oak woodland valley support one of the best High Brown Fritillary populations in the countries (England and Wales that is – Scotland and Northern Ireland lack this particular jewel), and the only known surviving population on Exmoor.  Most of the High Brown slopes there have resonant names like Kittitoe, Rhydda Bank and Trentishoe combe.  There is power here, deep almost Pagan power, and a torrent stream, complete with Dippers, rampaging along the bottom, desperate to escape out to sea in the rocky cover of Heddons Mouth.

On Tuesday June 17th I counted 123 High Brown Fritillary in four sites in the valley, and an extra 46 at three smaller sub-sites the following afternoon; each one of them pristine and eternal.  The top spot recorded an impressive 60 in 20 minutes (plus 14 Dark-green Fritillaries and six indeterminates which could have been either species).  By modern High Brown standards that is massive (and by the standards of High Brown recording a wonderfully small error bar).  I returned there in the evening, to watch them feeding up on bramble and Marsh Thistle flowers prior to going up into the oaks to roost.  There were even more on display, though one by one they ascended into the high oak sprays to roost.  The valley was chanting at me, football supporter style: “Beat that, Purple Emperor, if you can…”.  He couldn’t.  Never mind the Liverpool Kop, this was the Heddon Kop in full voice – only it was entirely in my head.

HBF m upp VG 3 Heddon 17.6.15 - Copy

Heddon. Ladies Mile slope 18.6.15 - Copy

That evening the text came through: the first Purple Emperors of the year had been seen by Rob Hill at Bookham Common in Surrey, battling away amongst themselves and even chasing off a Sparrowhawk.  This was the butterfly’s second earliest appearance since the long hot summer of 1893, after 13th June 2011.

But the Emperor flattered to deceive in a summer which belonged to the golden High Brown Fritillary.  These two butterflies used to roost together in the oak crowns in the good old days when the High Brown was a common butterfly in woodland in south east and central southern England.  Doubtless they squabbled about it, though, but spiritually they are cousins.  I have never seen them flying together, and never will in the UK.

Emperor numbers were way down almost everywhere, with the exception of the mighty Fermyn Woods up in Northamptonshire, where I managed to count 90 apparent individuals during a nine hour non-stop day there at the start of July.  I also counted 42 in two heady hours whilst showing a group from the BB Society round the main Fermyn Wood block.  That was seriously good going, and we all felt the great man (Denys Watkins-Pitchford, alias the naturalist writer and Emperorphile ‘BB’) was with us.  Of course he was.  And we weren’t celebrating his life, we were living it.

But the Emperor’s magic was moving south, to Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex, where the population was building impressively under the owner’s visionary re-wilding programme, as sallow thickets sprung up riotously over land recently taken out of intensive agricultural production.  Soon, very soon, Fermyn and Knepp would battle for the position of being Britain’s premier Purple Emperor site.  But elsewhere, Emperor numbers were way, way down – perhaps because of excessive tit predation during the preceding autumn and winter?

After a modest Emperor season the High Brown reasserted his grip as butterfly of the year, first on the Morecambe Bay limestone hills at the start of August, and then at the end of the butterfly season when I was blown away by the extent and quality of habitat of the High Brown’s Bracken slopes in the Alun valley, just to the south east of glorious Bridgend in the Land of Song.  I visited in mid-October, after giving a talk to the local Butterfly Conservation branch, and knew straight away that I was in one of the very best High Brown sites I have ever visited, not least because of the excellent habitat management work conducted there by BC South Wales branch.   There is magic, if not exactly in Bridgend, then close by.   It is unusual for official butterfly monitoring to agree with my highly personal Butterfly of the Year award, but in 2014 my experience tallied with Butterfly Conservation’s scientific assessment, for once.  My criterion is simple, Butterfly of the Year goes to the species by which the year will best be remembered.  Daft, certainly, but it’s been running since 1967 and I’m not going to give up now, and we all collect memories, avidly – and summer provides them, massively.

August was poor – wet, cool and windy, with just a scatter of decent days.  A classic autumn depression came over on the 10th – the tail-end of something vile called Hurricane Bertha.  That produced a lot of rain and seven very windy days, which blew away the butterflies, even in the gardens.  It started all too promisingly, with a trip up north, to the Yorkshire Dales and the Morecambe Bay limestone hills. The Dales were visited primarily to experience the limestone hay meadows at Yockenthwaite in Upper Wharfedale, upstream of Hubberholme.  Botanically, these meadows are near-perfect, complete with steep banks which cannot be mown and are only lightly grazed.  They look perfect for warmth-loving insects such as butterflies, bees and grasshoppers, but at 250m above sea level in the sprightly realm of Yorkshire the climate is too cool for much insect life, even on a wonderfully warm day.  The difference in insect life between those meadows 250m up and others lower down the valley around Grassington, 180m up, was stunning – the latter was rocking with insects, including sizeable colonies of Small Skipper and Ringlet, newcomers in Wharfedale, and some stray Scotch Argus which had doubtless been bred and released there by some lost misguided but well-meaning soul.  The distinctive dark race of the Scotch Argus which occurred around Grassington died out around 1955, probably due to an increase in sheep grazing.

Yockenthwaite Meadows 2 29.7.14 - CopyYockenthwaite Meadows

But if our climate warms, butterflies may well move swiftly into the Yockenthwaite meadows, and those around awesome Malham, and bring them joyously to full life – if it warms, without become too wet… .  The future of some of our southern limestone grassland butterflies may well lie up here – so perhaps the well-intentioned souls who have been clandestinely releasing Scotch Argus around Grassington are actually releasing the wrong species… .

My birthday (August 7th) was spent in a near-crisis meeting on Arnside Knott, where the tenant farmer’s cattle had been grazing the Blue Moor Grass sward rather too zealously for the Scotch Argus, whose population had declined alarmingly.  We sorted it, folks, and very soon the Knott should be once more alive with Scotch Arguses on early August days.  Butterfly populations often bounce back spectacularly after spells of so-called ‘over-grazing’.  If not, get on to me – I’ll kill for this place.

In late August the Isle of Wight called.  Bee-eaters were nesting in a sandy bank on National Trust land near Niton at the Island’s southern tip.  And not just one pair either, but two.  They successfully raised eight young, to the delight of numerous naturalists who were guided to a viewing spot by National Trust and RSPB staff.  This was the most successful breeding attempt by Bee-eaters in the UK, and perhaps a sign of things to come, if our climate actually warms – if… .  It was too much for me: I instantly declared the Bee-eater an Honorary Butterfly – we could do with an insectivorous butterfly as the Purple Emperor isn’t quite violent enough, it doesn’t kill anything.

bee-eater and bee

The summer was becoming silly, and had to end.  It ended on Guernsey and Herm in the Channel Islands at the end of August, where two species of butterfly stood out brazenly – the Holly Blue and the Speckled Wood.  Both were remarkably numerous, even along Bracken cliff slopes away from any scrub or woodland.  The Speckled Woods were deeply orange spotted, like their Scilly Island cousins.  The Holly Blues were even more remarkable on Herm.  There was plenty of Ivy for the late summer brood to breed on, but a near-total absence of any of the flowering shrubs used by the spring brood – no Holly, little Euopean Gorse, and very little Holm Oak and Pittospermum.  What is the spring brood breeding on here?  Answers, please, on this website… .

Of course, once August ended the weather improved.  September was the driest on record for the UK as a whole, beating that of 1959 (apparently).  But, sadly, it followed the 8th wettest August.  October was mild but wet, though it ended strongly – the October half-term week was warmer and sunnier than the summer half-term week back in May.  That summed 2014 up rather aptly.

Of course, I could have written this account three times over, mentioning different species and different places.  Such is butterflying.

In pursuit of Butterflies, the book continued…

Here are the latest updates of my book, In Pursuit of Butterflies (Bloomsbury, 2015).  I decided to add new chapters on this website, covering subsequent years, and perhaps some places or landscapes that didn’t make it into the book. These are polished drafts which haven’t been through the rigour of a copy editor.

The book itself is, of course, far too long – I’m sorry it’s so long, but I didn’t have time to write anything shorter.

Here then are chapters on 2015 and 2014.

 

In Pursuit of 2015…

Diary, Thursday January 1st 2015 –  

New Year was seen in, alone, on a mild, moony night on the western edge of Hailey Wood, near Cirencester, beneath a veteran beech tree to which I am curiously attracted.  It stands on a wood edge bank, and has huge limbs that droop to the ground, offering a house of sanctuary to lovers of Nature.  The firs in Tarlton Bottom were alive with tawny owls, and I disturbed a great many wood pigeons on my walk in from Tarlton Down Corner.  Far off, foxes were mating, and making a ridiculous din about it.  The forest was shimmering in moonlight, a silvering broken only by the stark black trunks of the sleeping-waking trees – I charged them to dream up the spring, and to dream it slow and deep.  There was not a human being – or a car – anywhere within range, the nearest house being a mile off.  Yet from just before midnight the sky pulsated with firework explosions which would have been heard on the Western Front.  It felt as if people were trying to blow the sky itself up.  Such is our relationship with Nature today.

The nature writer Peter Marren, who has researched the symbolism of butterflies in art, has determined that the Red Admiral is a symbol of darkness, sin and death.  He’s probably right, for yet again my first butterfly of the year was a Red Admiral, and yet again a substandard butterfly season ensued.

Marren’s work, summarised in his treatise on our relationship with butterflies Rainbow Dust, has made me more than merely paranoid lest my first butterfly of the year should be a Red Admiral, as it was in 2015.  In future plan your summer holidays around my year’s first butterfly: If it’s a Red Admiral, or a Peacock, get out of Britain.  But don’t blame me, blame Marren.

The good news is that the 2016 butterfly season is unlikely to kick off with a Red Admiral, as this largely migratory butterfly was present only in low numbers in 2015, and disappeared from large parts of the country altogether in late September – I saw my last of the year as early as 9th October, and recorded fewer autumn Red Admirals in 2015 than in any previous year.  Good.

Back in early 2015, great promise was in the air.  It was almost tangible at times.  The winter had been the sunniest on record, though in the whole-UK data set which only runs back to 1929.  March had oscillated as only March can, then April became the sunniest on record – though only in the post-1929 data set.

Then, yet again, the malicious demon – or is it a grumpy Greek God – which controls the jet stream, which directs our weather, deemed that the wretched thing should jump south on St Mark’s Day, April 25th, just as things were warming up nicely.  The early spring insects were soon blasted away – all the mining bees and their attendant bee flies, the hoverflies, the dangly-legged St Mark’s Flies, and spring’s butterflies.  I saw a mere three Grizzled Skippers all spring, not least because it seems to be in the process of dying out from Cirencester Park Woods, my local Grizzled Skipper stronghold.  A run of rampant grass growth years may have made the clearings and young plantations there too grassy for a butterfly that breeds on a narrow range of plants, notably Wild Strawberry, which are colonisers of bare ground.  Bare ground is at a premium in Cirencester Park Woods now, which may also impact severely on the Pearl-bordered Fritillary population there, the last in Gloucestershire.  I am now Officially Worried about the Grizzled Skipper, as it came bottom in my annual Butterfly of the Year contest – a piece of trivial pursuit that flows through my mind each year, threatening at times to become important.  Usually the Holly Blue comes bottom, or the Clouded Yellow, for not showing up.

The Marsh Fritillary Show

But the spring of 2015 had its champion butterfly.  Once again the Marsh Fritillary made the spring its own, by staging a spectacular come back at Strawberry Banks, the fragment of heaven which is the butterfly’s sole Cotswold locality.  Some 4000-5000 larvae were present there during February and March, munching their way through Devil’s Bit Scabious leaves which hardly grew in the absence of early spring rain.  To put that number into context, the butterfly nearly died out on the Banks early in 2012, when a mere 52 larvae were present (counted three times, on three different days).  Somehow it made it through, recovered, and flourished again in 2015.  Here’s a microcosm of what was happening on the Banks this May –

MF show 9 on ransoms 17.5.15 - Copy

The Large White was also stirring, at least in the Cotswolds.  By the end of May I had seen 55, an unusually high tally for a butterfly which is surprisingly scarce until mid-July, when it suddenly proliferates.  If the summer was fair the Large White would storm every cabbage patch in Britain, and form clouds dense enough to stall traffic on the M25 – there is always Hope…

But the jet stream’s jump ensured that only two other butterfly species shone in the spring of 2015: the Peacock, which was by far the most numerous of the species which hibernate as adult butterflies, and the Green Hairstreak, which timed its flight season in the Cotswolds to coincide with the best of the April weather.

Ascending the Great Orme

At the end of May the National Trust acquired a small farm on the summit of the Great Orme, the Carboniferous Limestone massif that broods above Llandudno on the North Wales coast.  The vendor was no less a mortal than the footballer Dean Saunders, of Liverpool and Wales, who had aspired to turn the 140 acres into a golf course, only to fail to get his act together, tire of the place, and put it back on the market.  Parc Farm itself is unimpressive, an intensively managed sheep farm excluded from the surrounding SSSI and SAC that makes the Great Orme one of the most important grassland sites in Europe.  However, under something glorious called a Deed of Compromise, the farm holds the grazing rights for most of the Orme’s wildlife-rich slopes.  Had the farm become a golf course, the grazing essential to the flora and fauna would probably have ceased, and the Orme would have deteriorated considerably as a wildlife site.  Enter the National Trust.

I was asked, first, to visit to help with media events associated with the acquisition, and then with the vision for the farm, and the detail of the nature conservation grazing it can deliver – four days exploring one of the most special and spectacular places in Britain.  What a rotten job!  Whilst doing a live TV piece on the summit my first Painted Lady of the year appeared, a worn male hill-topping in a limestone crag.  Now that was a deeply memorable and symbolic start to the Painted Lady season, promising a greatness from the summer that never actually developed.  So often the Painted Lady flatters to deceive, and did so this year.

The Great Orme is renowned for a massive population of a dwarf race of the Silver-studded Blue, subspecies caernensis, and also for a small race of the Grayling, known as subspecies thyone.  After a lot of effort I managed to see the first caernensis of the year, on the slopes of Ffynnon Gogorath, on May 27th, though thyone was clearly not out.  But oh the joys of Llandudno!  Try dining out there: Closed, Closed, “Sorry, sir, we stop serving food at 7pm” (that was a pub, supposedly).  Eventually a half-decent Italian.  The B&B was also bothersome: at 2am the tattooed gorilla in the next room beat up his girlfriend – in Welsh, with swearing in English.  Judging by appearances at breakfast the following morning, the lady won, but then she was a lady of no small consequence.

May ended at Haugh Wood, near Hereford.  This is the country’s top Wood White site, though to be honest I have a secret locality nearby where this delicate wanderer of woodland rides occurs in even higher density.  There, in a tiny glade, eight male Wood Whites were feeding together on the flowers of milkwort and Birdsfoot Trefoil, whilst a couple of females were laying eggs on the undersides of Yellow Meadow Vetchling leaves, and a Chiff-chaff called incessantly for the return of a spring which had become lost.  It is important that the countryside provides us all with secret places, where we can be alone with Nature, and be ourselves.

The last ten days of May saw insect populations in the doldrums, between the premature ending of spring and the delayed arrival of summer.  Then June kicked off with a fully-fledged gale, worthy of late October.  This was followed by a lovely early summer day devoid of butterflies, then a day of thunderstorms (Belgium got clobbered).  Something was brewing.

In Pursuit of Butterflies was first launched at the Gilbert White Museum in Selborne, on Sunday June 7th.  It could have been launched on Noar Hill that morning, for the hill was on top form, having recovered from a bad attack of Favourable Condition – a corporate fashion masquerading as nature conservation, wherein all the scrub on the chalk pit banks was cut, over a short period, in a naïve, costly and ultimately futile attempt at clearing it.  The Brown Hairstreak, one of the SSSI features of Noar Hill, suffered badly.  Scrub likes being cut – it rejuvenates it.  But now, the funds had run out and the place was recovering spectacularly, especially the young blackthorn growth favoured by the Brown Hairstreak.  The last Duke of Burgundies and Orange Tip of the year were seen here.  May is so poor a month nowadays that these two early spring butterflies seldom now persist into June.

But the day ended sorrowfully.  I had the ominous feeling that something was wrong in the Straits Inclosure, over in Alice Holt Forest, to the north-east of Selborne.  I have an intuitive relationship with this wood: I know what’s going on there, despite living 75 miles away and visiting only intermittently.  Sure enough, I discovered that the Forestry Commission contractors, Euroforest, had heavily thinned much of the western half of the wood during the spring.  Previously it had been FC policy not to harvest timber there during the nesting season.  Now, most of the breeding sallows used by the Purple Emperor in the wood’s western half had been wantonly removed, along with huge swathes of Honeysuckle tangle used by the White Admiral.  It was hard not to think that these actions were deliberate.

At the end of June the FC followed up by flail-cutting the whole length of the main ride, thistles and all.  Why?  Are they deliberately trying to knock out the wood’s butterfly fauna?  Perhaps they think that too many butterfly enthusiasts visit the place?  The Straits is highly unlikely to become a great Purple Emperor wood again during my lifetime.

In Pursuit… was formerly launched at the Natural History Museum on June 11th.  Later, I launched a copy into the Thames.  It sailed joyously away.

In mid-June the 2015 butterfly season at last got going.  I was on Exmoor, surveying Heath and High Brown fritillaries.

Diary entry, Mon June 15th

I got ambushed whilst driving from Exford to the top of Porlock Common – by the Painted Lady.  I’d passed a couple of singletons, then found a pair of males battling over the possession of a small clump of hill top gorse in the evening sun, around 7pm.  They’re back, they’re in, and they mean business.  Hopefully the long hot summer of 2015 will now begin.  Fancy travelling all the way from the Mediterranean or beyond to squabble over the possession of a lonely hilltop gorse bush… .

PL m 3 on gorse Holnicote 15.6.15 - Copy

However, the Painted Lady invasion then petered out.  And the High Brown Fritillary, though numerous on the Bracken slopes of Heddon Valley on the Exmoor coast, was not in the profusion it had been in back in 2014.  And my knees were packing up – nothing taxes knees more than constantly twisting to identify a fast-flying fritillary hurtling over Heddon’s precipitous, Bracken-infested slopes.  Try this: breast stroke uphill through pathless impenetrable head high Bracken – disengage feet from hidden brambles underfoot – twist as a male fritillary hurtles past you – Dark-green or High Brown? – stumble onwards a few more stumbling steps – trip over bramble – swim through Bracken – turn ankle on loose stone – twist to identify another manic fritillary… disappear down a hidden rabbit hole into Wonderland.  It’s insanity…

First We Take Llandudno

Bruised, bloodied and covered in tick bites, it was time to head back up to the Great Orme, to tackle the conservation grazing plan.  The place needs a shepherd ecologist, probably a young couple.  Such skills are taught in some French agricultural colleges, but not in the UK’s.  The Orme needs a conservation flock of hardy breed sheep, which can be folded at night back on Parc Farm, and shepherded out on the slopes by day.  But many of the grasslands and heathlands on the gentle upper slopes have become too rank for sheep, and need cattle.  So some small, nimble cattle are required too, with short stocky legs and a low centre of gravity.  Traditional Welsh Black cattle would suffice.  And all the farm supplies – hay, straw, young stock – have to travel up to the top of the Orme on the tourist’s tramway that zigzags up to the summit from Llandudno!  What a life for an energetic, outward-facing young couple with interests in wildlife and farming.  They can even dine out periodically in Llandudno.

But the Orme has goats, which have hefted themselves into four areas, high along the Limestone crag tops.  Apparently they’ve been there since the latter days of Queen Victoria.  At times their numbers have built up so much that problems have occurred – usually in the form of young dispersing males storming Llandudno, in search of pastures new.  There have also been issues with goat welfare.  All that’s sorted now, with an all-singing all-dancing population and welfare programme.  The goats are even ear tagged.

The Orme’s flora is at its richest in the goat heft areas, though the animals do have the habit of eating some rare plants, notably the Welsh Cotoneaster, a UK endemic known only from this area.  Of course, there are ungrazed scrub-infested areas which desperately need goats.

This photo is entitled First We Take Llandudno…

Goat First we take Llandudno 2 26.6.15 - Copy

And here’s the slopes of the SW flank of the Orme, around Gogarth.  Around Midsummer Day these slopes offer some of the best butterflying in Britain, when the Silver-studded Blue is at peak.

Great Orme Ffynnon Gorgath 27.6.15

And here are male and female Silver-studded Blues from the Orme –

SSB m upp VVG Gr Orme 26.6.15 - Copy   SSB f upp 2 Gr Orme 26.6.15 - Copy

The weather was improving, but the Purple Emperor season was a little way off.  There was time for a Mountain Ringlet expedition, incorporating a visit to the Morecambe Bay limestone hills.  The butterfly season was running even later there, with Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary still out in numbers alongside a fair scatter of Dingy Skipper.  Dark-green Fritillaries and Large Heaths were only just starting, and High Brown Fritillary was clearly some way off (it started there on July 6th).  

Yet Another Manic Mountain Ringlet Expedition…

Wednesday July 1st was the hottest July day on record, with 37C recorded at Heathrow.  In the Lake District it was sweltering – ideal for yet another masochistic onslaught on the Mountain Ringlet, with partner in crime John Hooson, knees permitting.  We went to catch up with research the RSPB is conducting on this poorly understood inhabitant of the high fells.

The RSPB owns or leases a huge area of eastern Lakeland around Haweswater, including an expanse of fell top around High Raise and Kidsty Howes, where they have reduced grazing pressure substantially.  Ten years ago they set up 16 ambitious Mountain Ringlet transects, each 1km long by 50m wide.  These routes are walked once a year in good weather during the butterfly’s (assumed) peak season period.  Of course, montane weather has ensured that good data has been obtained in only half those years, but at least it’s something.  One problem is that it takes over an hour to walk up to where the ringlets start, around the 525m contour.

This summer, a post-doc researcher, Steven Ewing, was camping out on Kidsty Howes, studying the butterflies – recording where the females lay their eggs, following the fate of the eggs (most fell off), and even finding the larvae.  The latter is a major breakthrough as until recently it was assumed that Mountain Ringlet larvae are nocturnal and impossible to find.  Neither of these assumptions is true, and slowly but surely the secrets of the Mountain Ringlet are being unravelled.  We even made some progress on July 1st, watching a number of eggs being laid amongst the Mat Grass tussocks.

Kidsty Pike is the peak just right of centre –

Kidsty Pike 1.7.15 - Copy

The ringlet was not the only butterfly up on the high fells that scorching day, for Green-veined Whites were numerous around the base-rich flushes some 500-600m up, laying eggs on Ladies Smock which, rather incredibly, was still in flower up there.  Whether the butterfly has one or two broods up there is unknown.  Certainly it was at peak season that day.

That night a series of spectacular thunderstorms broke out, generating innumerable lightning strikes.  Manchester and Oldham were obliterated, and the M6 was flooded for hours.  The weather then fell apart in the Lake District, and northern Britain generally, and a miserable summer ensued up there (so poor that snow persisted on some Scottish mountains).  This meant that, amazingly, Mountain Ringlets were still flying at Kidsty Howes on August 18th – by far the latest the butterfly has been recorded on the wing in England.  The Cumbrian year ended tragically, with extensive flooding and damage to infra structure inflicted by Storm Desmond in early December, which deposited a UK all-time record of 341mm of rain in 24 hours at Honister Pass, up in ringlet country.

Knepp Takes Over…

I had spent much of 1975 Purple Emperor season in the woods a little to the north of Knepp, deep in the West Sussex Weald (see In Pursuit.. chapter 7, nostalgically entitled Walden).  Forty years on I was back, not in precisely the same place and certainly not in the same tent, for that had rotted away years ago.  But the woods I frequented in ’75 have become a shadowland.  I could find no vestige of their old selves there.  It was as if they were in slumber, though they will wake again, sometime.  Perhaps they have migrated – for places do move (think sand dune, salt marsh, or even a New Forest wood).

Instead, the spirit of ’75 was alive and throbbing in the main block of Knepp Wildlands, 1475 acres of former dairy and arable farmland between Shipley and Dial Post, now developing into new age pasture woodland under the Knepp rewilding project.  Perimeter fenced, with all internal fencing removed, the block is grazed as a single compartment by nomadic longhorn cattle, fly-by-night deer and the happiest pigs in Christendom (Tamworths).   The tent has been replaced by this shepherd’s hut.  Purple Hairstreaks adorn the oak edge there on July evenings, Turtle Doves churr distantly, and in mid-July 2015 a family of Stoats gambolled around joyfully, in full view.

Knepp Shepherds hut - Copy

Knepp Wildlands could easily be called Knepp Sallowlands.  Between 2001 and 2006, sallow seed rained down on acres and acres of bare clay, as field after field came out of arable rotation or maize production.  Rampant sallow thickets, jungles even, quickly developed, despite vigorous browsing in spring by cattle and deer.

One part of Knepp Wildlands, formerly an arable field called 27 Acres, looks like this –

Knepp 27 Acres 8.7.15 - Copy

It has been renamed 27 Emperors, after 27 Purple Emperors were counted there in as many minutes late one morning in early July.   Most of those were males searching the sallows for females, or soaring over the tall oaks that line the outgrown hedge systems.

Forty years ago the woods to the north boasted a modest Purple Emperor population.  On a good day 20 might be seen there.  Forty years on, the Emperor has erupted to the south: Knepp Wildlands now support the largest population in the country, thoroughly outgunning the mighty Fermyn Woods up in Northamptonshire (in what was a poor Purple Emperor season).  Not bad for a butterfly which only intermittently wandered through Knepp when the land was intensively farmed.

Moreover, the Emperor’s conquest of Knepp finally dispels the myth that it is an ancient woodland butterfly and of necessity a great rarity; for Knepp is the equivalent of a brownfield site, of very recent origin, and no butterfly needs, or wants, to be rare.  Above all, the Emperor is a butterfly of scrubland, with an abundance of sallow.  Vast amounts of sallow are needed, as relatively little of it is in suitable breeding condition at any one time.  The Emperor’s problem is simple: foresters hate sallows, regarding it as a weed – hence the eradication of so much sallow in Alice Holt Forest Straits Inclosure, and elsewhere.  The Emperor is a victim of inherent and ill-founded prejudice.

The Knepp Estate is developing wildlife tourism, partly as a business venture and partly to win converts over to the concept of rewilding.  Wildland safaris take place almost throughout the year, including Nightingale nights in spring (34 singing males in 2014), deer rutting days in the autumn, and the best of all, Purple Emperor Safaris on weekends in July, led by Messrs Hume & Oates.

The Purple Emperor population at Knepp is now so vast that on Sunday July 11th Messrs Hulme & Oates guided a group to to see 100 Purple Emperors, in a short day punctuated by a long, leisurely and utterly luxurious lunch beneath a mighty spreading oak, and side tracked by close encounters with ecstatic Tamworth pigs and piglets, and Turtle Doves.  Here’s the party celebrating the century –

Knepp Safaris - 100 up! 11.7.15 - Copy

To put this into context, prior to that day only four people had managed to score a century of Emperors in a day, ever.  Hume & Oates calculated that had they not been leading a group that day, and had they worked longer hours and covered more of the 1475 acres, they might have scored a double century, each…  So much for the old day-target of 20…  Next year, 200; thereafter, Bradman’s 334; then Lara’s 505.  We need some ambition in Emperoring.

But the highlight of the 2015 Purple Emperor season was the evening of July 16th.  The day had been spent discovering a small population of the butterfly in the woods at Sissinghurst, near Cranbrook in Kent – unchartered territory.  I arrived back at Knepp at 6pm, expecting to witness a short evening flight, only to experience one of the most amazing episodes I’ve had with this the best of all possible butterflies.  Wandering down the green lane that runs north to south through the Wildlands, Purple Hairstreaks were numerous – having a good year for once – and I ticked off five malcontent male Emperors up in the oaks; then spotted a female spiraling down, rejecting the advances of two amorous males, and almost crash-landing into the grasses by my feet.

Shortly after, I realized why they had met – they’d been feeding on sap runs on one of the veteran oaks along the green lane.  Then, between 7.20 and 8.30 at least six males and three distinct females visited these bleeds, favouring a diseased kink in a horizontal bough 25’ up, where up to four were seen feeding at once – combinations of four males, three males and a female, and two males and two females together.  The males were middle aged, but one of the females seemed pristine.  By 8.45 only a lone male remained.  He was still there in the gloaming when I left at 9.05, with rain starting and thunder a lightning rampaging to the west.

The light was so poor that evening that my own photos were a trifle disappointing, but I broadcast the location on the Emperoring grapevine and arranged for a ladder to be erected up the diseased tree.  Several other Purple People visited and obtained some superb photos, though the season and the weather were both on the wane by then.

PE x 4 close up on oak sap Knepp 16.7.15 - Copy

Perhaps their predilection for oak sap, and its ready availability, explains why Knepp’s Purple Emperor’s do not descend to feed on the tracks, unlike their cousins in Fermyn Woods, where the oaks are much younger and less sappy?  Only two males were photographed on the ground at Knepp all season.  Sap might also explain why the Knepp males are so violent, and their Fermyn cousins so placid?  We have had to erect health and safety warning notices –

PE - Violent hazard sign

Homage to Chattenden

Emperoring began in earnest back in the mid-Victorian era at Great Chattenden Wood near Rochester in Kent.  Before the New Forest came on stream, with the arrival of the railway, Chattenden was London’s main collecting ground for woodland butterflies; and the primary quarry was of course iris.  There are startling descriptions of sterling doings there, mainly in Frohawk and Tutt.  These are summarised in Heslop.  Males used to assemble on low oaks on the summit at the west end of the woods, at a cross-rides, where collectors used to capture them with ‘high nets’, about 15’ tall.  Baits were also used.  Frohawk states that a pair of collectors caught 97 Emperors ‘in a few days’ on dead animal baits there.  Then, according to Frohawk the butterfly suddenly and rather mysteriously died out in Chattenden, circa 1887, presumably because of widespread felling of sallows (though habitat descriptions are lacking).  Heslop disputes that date, pointing out that collecting permits were issued into the 1920s – expressly for catching Purple Emperors.

Great Chattenden Woods were taken over by the War Department during the First World War, and much woodland was cleared for encampments.  Most of what was once Great Chattenden Woods is still owned by the MOD, which has been trying to sell the land for development.  As that land is designated as SSSI, primarily for Nightingales, a mighty rumpus has developed.  Lodge Hill, as the potential development land is known, has been much in the news lately, with government labelling it as brownfield land suitable for development.  It is not brownfield, it is an ancient woodland site which was partly cleared during the Great War.  It should be restored to woodland, and the glory that was once Great Chattenden Wood would rise again.

The great news is that iris is back in Chattenden – if it ever left.  Better, the males are still assembling over now-stunted veteran oaks at the cross-rides on the summit of the hill at the wood’s western end.  I saw my last of the season there, at the ending of July.  Habitat conditions look impressive, with an abundance of quality sallows along the lower slopes.  The butterfly is undoubtedly breeding on sallows on the Lodge Hill land too.

First, we retake Chattenden, then we take the world…

It was here that the Purple Emperor won Butterfly of the Year 2015, though the main battle had been won at Knepp.

The Clouded Yellow’s Return

What do you do when the party’s over?  Find another party.

Dear Martin Warren, Chief Exec of Butterfly Conservation, spent the last days of July and the start of August walking the Purbeck coast footpath, to raise funds to assist the conservation of our rarest butterflies – the High Brown Fritillary, Duke of Burgundy and Wood White.  Being Martin, the sun shone miraculously throughout, and his walk raised a massive £14,000.

He asked me and John Ingham, from The Daily Express to join him for the grand finale on Sunday August 2nd, the stretch from Worth Matravers to Swanage.  The butterflies rolled out the red carpet for us, particularly the Lulworth Skipper – that denizen of the Purbeck limestones which gets categorised as a little brown job, and is consequently rather ignored.  Though tiny and prone to mucking about amongst rough grasses, it’s a sweetheart, and relatively easy to photograph too – a beginner’s butterfly.  Butterfly Conservation has been worried about it lately, as it’s declined on Purbeck, and been lost from many former strongholds.  In some instances this decline is due to conservation grazing, for it favours rough grassland slopes where its foodplant Tor Grass, a thug of a grass, proliferates, but there are other, mysterious factors at play too.  Also, its flight season has shifted forward, so that it is usually well on the wane by the start of August, traditionally its peak season period.

But on this day, it was profuse in many places between Worth Matravers and Durleston Head, notably around the Winspit and Seacombe quarries, above Dancing Ledge and around Blackers Hole, on Belle View and on Durleston Head.  Martin, who lives in Dorset and knows this skipper well, was most impressed by what we saw of it.

The highlight, however, was the appearance of the first Clouded Yellows of the year, in a sheltered flowery combe between Dancing Ledge and Blackers Hole, moments after Martin had announced: “Here’s the place for a Clouded Yellow!” – that golden wanderer from sunnier climes whose appearance in the UK almost invariably heralds good summer weather.  First, one pristine male patrolling the length of the little valley at speed, then a second equally perfect male quartering the lower slopes.  Of course, they met, and squabbled terribly, spiraling up into a cobalt sky together.  Our guess was that they’d just arrived in off the sea.  We left them to it.

Winspit & Dancing Ledge 1.8.15 - Copy

Revenge!

Forty summers ago England was well beaten by the Australians in an Ashes series shortened by the first ever cricket world cup.  Only the silver-haired David Steele, from Northamptonshire, and my batting hero John Edrich were able to resist the might of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, backed up by ‘Tangles’ Walker, who rather blew England’s batting away.

Forty years on, revenge proved sweet, most notably on Thursday August 6th when England annihilated Australia at Trent Bridge, bowling them out for 60 in a mere 18.3 overs (Stuart Broad 8-15).  I was visiting an old stomping ground, Stockbridge Down in west Hampshire, with National Trust colleague, ranger Catherine Hadler.  Poor Catherine, she didn’t know what was going on – but realised it was Mega and entered into the spirit of a glorious day.  So did Stockbridge Down, where butterflies and flowers are booming now that the Rabbit population has died down.  For much of the nineties this down was hammered by Rabbit grazing, such that in dry summers hardly a vestige of grass showed.  Downland recovers splendidly from Rabbit abuse.

This year, the down looked the best it’s looked since the early 1980s, offering a profusion of Chalkhill Blue and a wealth of other butterflies.  Brimstone was highly impressive, with a major hatch that day.  We counted 19 on one wild Buddleia bush on the edge of the bottom car park.

But why can you never find an Australian when you need one?

The Brown Hairstreak Show, and a Butterfly Collector

Before visiting Stockbridge Down I’d called in at Shipton Bellinger Roughs, a jungle of MOD-owned scrubland punctuated by rough grazing fields on the Hampshire – Wiltshire border.  This may well be the UK’s top Brown Hairstreak site.   I was only there for 15 minutes but managed to see eight Brown Hairstreak males, active in warm drizzle just after 9am.  The diary entry concludes: ‘Must return ASAP, as this is most promising…’.

After a week in Cumbria, sorting out the grazing regime on Arnside Knott, I did return, on Saturday August 15th.  Brown Hairstreak males bat around like mad early in the morning, presumably searching for females in need of male services.  They are most active between 8.30 and 10.00.   That Sunday I arrived at 8.55, having overslept, but the butterflies were making up for lost time as the previous two days had been wet, with all species grounded.

In 2 hours 15 mins, 30 minutes of which were cloudy, I counted 76, repeat 76 Brown Hairstreaks, finishing with a vista of seven as the sun broke through after a cloudy spell.  Nearly all were male – I noted only three females.  It is likely that many had emerged this morning.  This appears to be the most Brown Hairstreaks anyone has ever counted, though it must be added that butterfly counting is a relatively new activity and that this butterfly has declined monumentally in recent decades.  Had I arrived at 8am, as planned, and had it not clouded up, as forecast, I may well have reached the hundred.  Had that happened, and had August not deteriorated badly, the Brown Hairstreak would probably have won Butterfly of the Year.

As I was leaving, to meet up with Stephen Moss at Broughton Down, the butterfly photographers arrived, along with my first butterfly collector in decades – a Ghurka by appearance.  Whatever, he was either unwilling or unable to speak English, though he was clearly after Brown Hairstreaks – there was little anyone could do: the site is not an SSSI, a nature reserve or anywhere covered by wildlife bylaws, and the Brown Hairstreak is not a protected species.  All one can do is ignore, or perhaps let tyres down…

Summer Ending

August started well but fell spectacularly from grace.  Clouded Yellows same in at the start, and Long-tailed Blues appeared along the Kent and Sussex coast on the 8th.  But the second half of the month was very poor, especially in the west and most especially up north – indeed the north had a foul summer.  August grew wetter and wetter, only for fine weather to return just after the schools reconvened in early September.  This was too late for the butterflies, and a pleasant early autumn was marked for a dearth of butterflies, with the Red Admiral a notable absentee away from southern coasts.

The summer of 2015 was at best mixed.  There were fine spells during much of April, from the second half of June into mid-July, at the start of August and then during most of September and October.  But the rest of the butterfly season saw a lot of wet and windy weather – the sort of weather which blasts winged insects to kingdom come.  Indeed, it was a remarkably windy summer.

What matters now is next year, which will be 40 years on from the long hot summer of ’76, the ultimate butterfly summer of the modern era.  We are seriously overdue a good summer, having not had one since 2006 – 30 years on from the long hot summer.  Make no mistake, no way will the long hot summer miss out on her 40th anniversary.  Jack in the job, cash in the pension, sell your children into slavery, pack the spouse off to the mother in law’s, and cast yourself upon summer’s shores.  I’ll be there.

PE basking m in oak & PH. Knepp 16.7.15 - Copy