All posts by Matthew Oates

Sun March 1st

The long-awaited day of lifting and lightening, as spring pushed winter away on a blustery west wind, the sky brightened, and the cloud layer lifted and broke.  Ragged sunshine all day, with a scatter of heavy showers, some with rainbows, even double rainbows.  9C max but with a distinct wind chill, and a big temperature dip during showers.  3mm in my rain gauge. 

National Rookery Lift-off Day, at last!  They kicked off big time, including my village rookery (one pair built 2/3rds of a nest in the oaks above the little green chapel today).  Visited a daughter in Moreton in Marsh, Cotswods. Mrs O drove, so I could look at the rooks.  We passed at least a dozen rookeries, all kicking off splendidly, even building late into the afternoon (usually they stop around lunchtime).  I also saw five hares in cereal fields, which is mega for Glos.  No fieldfares or redwings, I think they’ve gone again.

Mon February 24th

This washed-out February continues to soak its way to its soggy end.  Driving rain from 8am till 2pm, then intermittent (the sky was supposed to clear, but didn’t).  11mm.  Our lane floods again.  And another petty gale (Storm Nemo). 

The colours of the landscape: the browns of compacted unsown or crop failed arable fields, whitened by standing water; the washed out green of permanent pasture which has somehow managed to grow throughout the winter, without ever looking remotely verdant; the gradual purpling of thorn hedges, and the ambering of distant willow tops; and, rendered almost invisible by nebulosity, the wood-ash grey of dying ash trunks. 

Sat February 1st

Mad March wind, in the tree tops and all points below.  Blustery sunshine.  Ridiculously mild (13C) but with a wind chill off the W wind. 

Bookham Common, Leatherhead.  20 mins around 2pm. In which I called in at Mark Oak on route to giving a talk to the Friends of Box Hill, at Mickleham Village Hall, and realised I’d underestimated how much I love this place.  How warmly it welcomed me.  It wrapped its arms around me.  Leaving was difficult.  A carpet of celandine leaves.  Honeysuckle tangles greening well.  Mistle thrush and great tit in song.  Mud. 

I have been a diarist for decades. In Pursuit of Butterflies is the product of my butterfly & nature diaries. In recent years my diaries have broadened out well beyond butterflies, particularly to seasonality and place. My diary for 2019 was 92,000 words long. Postings here are snippets from my diary for 2020.

I have been a diarist for decades. In Pursuit of Butterflies is the product of my butterfly & nature diaries. In recent years my diaries have broadened out well beyond butterflies, particularly to seasonality and place. My diary for 2019 was 92,000 words long. Postings here are snippets from my diaries.

His Imperial Majesty, a natural history of the Purple Emperor

Early draft of the cover design…

Launch date:  June 11th 2020.

Publisher:  Bloomsbury.

This book is as it states, simply a natural history.  It is not a definitive account of the ecology of this elusive and almost-impossible-to-study insect, but will hopefully be the launching pad for work to reach such an understanding. 

It’s aims are to inspire and enable people to go out and study, record and fully appreciate this the best of all possible butterflies. The book’s message is that this is not a rare insect, and probably never was, only we have been rubbish at looking for it, and confused mythology with knowedge. The Purple Emperor could and should be widespread and locally numerous in many rural and suburban landscapes. This is a Good News species!

It is in places an extremely silly book, because this is at times an extremely silly butterfly…  (natural history and, especially, ecology and conservation are so DRY and humourless these days…). The Purple Emperor has inspired some of the most eccentric behaviour in our history.

The book is partly a personal narrative journey and partly a handbook – there are two How to… chapters and a lengthy appendix of county histories and current status. There’s a lot of hypothesising, for example on the impacts of climate change, but some good science. In particular, I think I’ve decoded adult behaviour well. Also, I’ve studied the immature stages in the wild for over ten long years, though the late-stage larvae and pupae are extremely hard to study. Hopefully I’ve paved the way for some decent scientific research on this species.

The title comes from one of the many epithets given to this insect by the Victorian butterfly collectors.


Foreword           by Isabella Tree

Adrift on the wind (introduction)

Chapter 1           A Glorious History   The hunting geneThe meaning in a name – The pursuit of iris in Victorian and Edwardian times – baiting and the high net – W H Hudson, a voice against collecting – The legacy in literature and art

Chapter 2           The Modern Era   I R P Heslop and Notes & Views of the Purple Emperor – the two Fs: forestry and farming – Denys Watkins-Pitchford (‘BB’), breeding and releasing – ecological studies at Bookham Common – a method for surveying for Purple Emperors – modern communications: website development – media interest and The Emperor’s Breakfast – Fermyn Woods: BB’s dream fulfilled – Knepp Wildlands: paradise regained – Introduced populations – Butterflies and the law.

Chapter 3           The Purple Empire    Status and distribution: historic and current overviews, distribution maps – Assessment.

Chapter 4           Introduction to the Adult Stage  General considerations – Beauty and the Emperor’s wings – Aberrations or colour variants – Emerging from pupae – How long Purple Emperors live – Mobility and dispersal – Timing of the flight season – Late records – A second brood? – Levels of abundance – Mortality

Chapter 5           Beauty as a Weapon, the Male Purple Emperor    Male ego – Times of flight, including weather factors, evening flight and roosting behaviour – Night flight – Young males – Feeding and tongue cleaning – Fox scat and worse, and house invasion – Shrimp paste, bananas and human sweat – Tree sap and ‘Feeder Trees’ – Honey dew –  Nectar and herbaceous plant sap – Local diet preferences – Sallow searching and oak edging – Male aggression – Clash and chase – Changing and maintaining territories – Interaction with other winged insects and with birds – Why? –  A cautionary tale – ‘Master Trees’, ‘Cluster-territories’, canopy gaps, hill topping, daily migrations and a summary.

Chapter 6           The Empress, a Life Apart   Feminine issues – Telling females from males – Times of flight and activity – Avoiding males – Maiden flight – Courtship and mating – Rejection drop tumbledowns – The Complexities of egg laying.

Chapter 7           How to look for Purple Emperors   Constant vigilance, or watch the birds! – Information sources – Leeward! – Looking for sallow-searching males – Grounded males – Canopy gaps and wooded high points – Feeder trees – Recording and monitoring – Access issues.

Chapter 8           Habitats and Breeding Grounds   A denizen of oak woods? – The clay lands – Young plantations: broad-leaved and conifer; sallow clearances; wood pasture – Hedges, roadsides and copses – New age breeding grounds – Among the river sallows… – Scrublands – Parks and gardens.

Chapter 9           Sallow Identification and Usage, a Veritable Nightmare   Egg laying résumé – Sallow taxonomy and identification – Breeding site selection: a study in Savernake Forest – Leaf thickness, shade, foliage development and tree age – Some conclusions.

Chapter 10         Eggs and Late Summer Larvae   The egg stage – Vulnerable first instar larvae – Second instar larvae – Third instar larvae – The ‘egg lay’: fluctuations in the number of eggs and early autumn larvae in Savernake Forest over an eleven-year period.

Chapter 11         Hibernation and the Winter Months   Introduction to hibernation – Colouring up – Journeying into hibernation – Buds, forks, scars and lesions – Predation by tits, and winter survival – Predation, movement and survival –

Chapter 12         Spring Larvae and the Pupal Stage   Caterpillar ambition – The departure lounge – Fourth instar larvae – The glory of final instar larvae – Parasites, poxes and diseases – The mysteries of pupation.

Chapter 13         Adventures with Remarkable Caterpillars   The Soul of Adonais – Number 198 – The Empress of Knepp – ‘Alastair Cook’ – The Other Side of the Coin.

Chapter 14         How to Look for Purple Emperor Eggs and Larvae   Eggs and late summer & autumn larvae – Leaf colour and larval feeding marks – Alpha trees – Spring & early summer larvae – Ad absurdum.

Chapter 15         The Purple Land that England Gained  (The 2018 Purple Emperor season at Knepp Wildlands).  Initial stirrings – Peak season – Safari time – The switch – Until the sun breaks down.

Chapter 16         Conservation Issues   Questionings – A wind through the willows – The sallow’s fall from grace – Conservation evidence base – Conservation systems – Habitat management: pollarding, coppicing, propagating sallows – Deer and squirrels – Scientific research priorities.

Chapter 17         The Future    Mobility and new dynamics – Town and country – Climate change and the move north – War against scrub – Pests, poxes and diseases – Purple Haze

Glossary of Terms

References and Further Reading             

Appendix  The History and Current Status of the Purple Emperor, by Region and County. These county summaries comprise about 25% of the book.

Beyond Spring (published Oct. 2017)

This is a book like no other, and I had a fantastic time writing it.

It’s available from Amazon Books and Fair Acre Press (publisher), paperback only, £10.99 full price.

It consists of a series of short chapters, some only 500 words long, of adventures and musings from the genesis of an English spring up to the pinnacle of midsummer’s glory, and during the descent towards autumn. It’s around 60,000 words long in all.

The book was born back in the long hot summer of 1976, when I wandered in golden light in what grown ups might deem a naive poetic dream but was actually the most wonderful reality anyone has ever encountered. I’ve spent much of my life  trying to get back there…

Forty years on, still seeking a way back into that realm of wonder, chapters were drafted in a pocket notebook whilst out and about in the English countryside. I didn’t visit anywhere specifically to write a piece, I just happened to be going there anyway. Above all, the chapters were drafted by the places and the natural situations I was in: I was a conduit, places use us.

Some pieces were written on roads, some on trains; one in Hyde Park and one at a motorway service station. Wiltshire and West Sussex figure prominently, simply because I spent a lot of time in those counties during 2016. I’m sorry Yorkshire and Cornwall missed out.

Then, during the winter of 2016-17 I typed the drafts up. It was the easiest book anyone has ever written, and writing it helped me through that winter.

It’s not perfect, nothing is, even spring. But I am genuinely pleased with it, and it seems to be well appreciated.

Read it during the darkling months of January and February, it was written to help us through those times.

Read it in places of darkness, like the London Underground, it was written to help us survive such places.

Read it surreptitiously during pointless meetings, it will help you survive.

Let’s get our relationship with Nature right…

I am dreaming up a sequel but am mainly writing His Imperial Majesty, a natural history of the Purple Emperor butterfly (for Bloomsbury).