How many butterflies have you seen this summer? Here in rainy, very wet Britain, I’ve seen only a few. In fact, for a period of many weeks now, our garden has seemed an almost butterfly-free-zone.
Last spring, I was busy studying for a short natural history course with the Open Universtity – and after many hours of ecological discovery (and some really eye-opening lichen communion!) – I decided to choose butterflies as the subject for my field study. During the planning stages, I kept some contingency projects simmering on the back burner – because, as deadlines loomed, so did many rain clouds! My tutor rang me to discuss my alternative plans, nervous that I’d not be able to gather any butterfly data. But fortunately, just in time, we were blessed with a series of sunny periods and I was able to do three butterfly transects at weekly intervals, and to record a number of species – even to analyse some emerging patterns.
Such inopportune periods of rain during previous springs and summers have caused problems for many butterfly species, but Butterfly Conservation fears that this year’s prolonged deluge may have added a truly stinging blow. The UK’s butterflies are already in dramatic decline – and some of the rarer species could be pushed even nearer the brink – maybe to beyond recovery – if this breeding season proves to be a disaster.
Reading this piece by Patrick Barkham in The Guardian (which outlines a plea from the wonderful Sir David Attenborough) I see that concerns for species such as the Heath Fritillary and Duke of Burgundy are acute. These two rare species cling on in just a few woodlands, and their isolated populations make it very hard for their numbers to recover should they suffer a drastic crash at any time. During the years when my husband and I ran a conservation volunteer group in Kent, we were involved in many a winter task in some of those treasured outposts of the Heath Fritillary and Duke of Burgundy. With a sense of real purpose, our merry band of volunteers would coppice and clear scrub to maintain the butterflies’ vital ecology and habitat. And then, in the warmer months, we would return and, if we were lucky, witness these luminous rarities on the wing. Like magic sparked on the out breath of the woods, it was as if they had glimmered into being between our hands and the trees and the soil; candle flames of nature, lit by centuries-old human relationship with the land. The thought of them being extinguished, leaves a cold chill in my bones.
This strange, wet summer seems utterly bereft without the sight of butterflies on the wing. My butterfly-starved vision latches on to the occasional speckled wood tumbling along our hedge – and a couple of weeks ago, a red admiral narrowly missed being snapped up by a sparrow as it passed by our bird feeders. But for the most part, the potential of spring – which lured out numbers of early species such as orange tip and brimstone – now taunts like a broken promise…
From 14th July through to 5th August, Butterfly Conservation is running a Big Butterfly Count in the UK to try to find out exactly how our butterflies are faring this summer. Armed with knowledge from the data they receive, they will be able to see more clearly what action may be needed – and everyone who takes part will be a vital cog in the bid to protect butterflies from decline. Each butterfly count takes just fifteen minutes and can be done anywhere – in your garden, local park, nearby nature reserve… and it’s an easy process to log your results online.
As David Attenborough says in The Guardian article:
“The fact that every single person can produce a statistic that is of real value is a great spur. But let’s not underestimate the spin-offs. Many people will for the first time start taking a careful and critical view of their surroundings. The butterfly count helps butterflies but it also helps natural history and eco-sensitivity in this country.”
Last Sunday dawned bright and blue-skied here – so I was able to catch a quarter of an hour of warm sunshine in my local nature reserve, before the clouds rolled in again. I was pleasantly surprised to count several meadow browns and ringlets and 1 red admiral and 1 comma in that time – more than I expected.
The rainy theme has clung on for much of this week – but, with the jet stream on the move, sunshine is, at last, fighting its way back. Whilst we count, wait and hope for the future of our butterflies, I’ve dug out some of my old photos from previous years (any old excuse!) to provide a virtual butterfly fest for the soul. I just can’t imagine (or rather don’t want to imagine) more summers empty of their beauty.
For some real treats, here’s a rich collection of stunning clips from the BBC’s inspirational and hypnotic documentary ‘Butterflies: a very British Obsession’ first shown last year (apologies to anyone who might not be able to access these – I’m not sure if the BBC enables viewing in all countries).
Butterflies have indeed long been a British obsession – (and a universal human fascination, I think). Britain’s history is littered with keen lepidopterists, including the inspiring figure of Eleanor Glanville, a 17th century pioneer entomologist who lived in Somerset, not far from here. I first learnt the details of Eleanor’s amazing story when I heard a radio interview with Fiona Mountain, whose romantic novel, Lady of the Butterflies is based on Eleanor’s life. I’ve not read Fiona Mountain’s novel, but her website has a fascinating article about Eleanor’s struggles as a natural historian – and as a woman born, both out of her time, and into a moment of emerging scientific enquiry which she grasped with both hands.
In an age when many people believed butterflies to be the souls of the dead, Eleanor’s curious mind was engaged in trying to make sense of their life cycles, in studying the various species closely, making careful records, corresponding with the Royal Society – and defying convention and gender restrictions by insisting on following her passion, despite great hostility from many around her. Her interest in butterflies was branded by some as a form of madness, and after her death, one of her sons played on these attitudes when he contested her will, asserting that ‘None but those who were deprived of their Senses, would go in Pursuit of Butterflies’. Now, she is recognised as a distinguished entomologist, the first to capture and describe the species which bears her name – the Glanville Fritillary.
Eleanor’s biographer wrote that Eleanor ‘gained happiness from natural history in the midst of great fear and sorrow’ and it’s easy to imagine how the butterflies she studied would have epitomised hope and renewal of purpose in her life. As the BBC documentary clips explore, our affinity with butterflies is experienced and expressed in many ways. From the countless and unrecorded moments of spontaneous delight in their beauty, to the women who mark their emotional transformations and rites of passage with butterfly tattoos - to the street artist whose art is as ephemeral as its inspiration – butterflies are a powerful symbol of emergence, transience, renewal, cycles of life, of joyous colour and liberation on the wing…
‘Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you’
- (Nathaniel Hawthorne)
What would life, our environment – our inspirations, cultural references and poetic imaginations – be like without them? Not only are butterflies vital to the ecological health of the land – we need them in so many other ways too.
‘You ask what is the use of butterflies? I reply to adorn the world and delight the eyes of men; to brighten the countryside like so many golden jewels. To contemplate their exquisite beauty and variety is to experience the truest pleasure’
- (John Ray, History of Insects, 1704)
‘My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting.’
- (Vladimir Nabokov)