Category: Butterflies & Moths
Village Voices Nature Note: Time to Fly
I hardly left Suffolk during lockdown – well, why would you? But this May I finally ventured out as far as another lovely county, Dorset, to try and catch up with a local celebrity there. I went to Giant Hill above Cerne Abbas, where a huge naked male figure (very naked, very male) is inscribed into the chalk hillside. That area is now fenced off, I was told, because women had taken to sleeping within the outline of the mighty male member hoping thereby to get pregnant. But I was in any case more interested in the lower slopes, where one of Britain’s rarest butterflies, the Duke of Burgundy, might be performing its own mating rituals. The Duke was never common in Britain, but in the nineteenth century it could still be found in several ancient Suffolk woodlands, like those at Reydon, Bentley and Bradfield. The last confirmed Suffolk sighting was in 1973, since when nothing. It’s hanging on at Giant Hill, though, breeding in very small numbers on the scrubby grassland where its favourite foodplants, primroses and cowslips, flourish in glorious yellow profusion. The Dukes are tiny but very beautiful, just thumbnail size with orange-and-brown chequered wings. They are the only European representatives of the Metalmark family, so called because of the distinctive glittering spots on the underwings.
You have to be at just the right place and time to see a Duke of Burgundy nowadays. The time is a short window in mid-May, and this is one of the few places. You have to be in the right posture, too, which is on your hands and knees, peering around to catch sight of the male perched on a stem, from which it sallies forth in short bouncy flights, to drive other males off its little kingdom. Just think, you have the whole of southern Britain to choose from and you have to defend to the death your minute patch (maybe a parable coming on here). The weather wasn’t great. Butterflies need it to be at least 14° C to warm their bodies sufficiently to fly and it was a cool, blustery day, threatening rain. But the clouds parted briefly and there was a sudden pulse of warmth from the sun. Almost immediately butterflies appeared, as if from nowhere: peacocks, tortoiseshells, red admirals, small brown jobs like grizzled and dingy skippers, and at last … yes, a freshly minted Duke, clinging to a buttercup.
The vision lasted only a few minutes. The clouds closed in and the rain came. But as the great Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore said, ‘The butterfly counts not in months but moments, and has time enough’.
7 June 2022
Village Voices Nature Note: a Herald, but of what?
The Herald Moth’s name may be meant to recall the flaring skirts of the medieval herald’s traditional costume, but its scientific name libatrix suggests dieval herald’s traditional costume, but its scientific name, suggests an alterna- an alternative explanation. Libatrix literally means meant ‘someone who pours a libation’, so maybe we are supposed to imagine the moth as a Roman priestess in her fine robes, pouring a libation to the gods or we could update that and think of it as someone raising a glass to greet the New Year with a rousing `Good Health’. Well, let’s hope so. My moth will emerge from hibernation in March or April, and what will our world be like then? Who knows? A month is a long time in a pandemic.
I’m uneasy. I think it was the exceptionally mild weather that made this Herald more active. Daffodils are already shooting up their green spears and may be flowering as you read this. I saw a bumblebee on the ivy the other day and birdwatchers have just spotted the first swallows of the year in Cornwall. We had the warmest ever New Year’s Day and people turned out in crowds to enjoy the unseasonable temperatures but we know this isn’t normal – or didn’t used to be. Some early stages of climate change may seem quite pleasant round here, but look round the world: tornados in the American mid-West, Typhoon Rai in the Philippines, record fires and snowfalls in Colorado, a heatwave in Bilbao. This is the ‘new normal’ and it’s coming our way. Expect the unexpected.
At COP 26 last November – remember that? – we were given some reasons to be hopeful. But have the promises already been forgotten? Can we still turn things round? Perhaps the wise advice is to think like pessimists and behave like optimists.
Village Voices Nature Note: The Sign of Summer
After a few minutes, I hear a rustling very close by. A beetle? A mouse? No, it’s a wren, working its way busily through the undergrowth, picking up tiny insects invisible to my eye with deft little pecks and pounces. I don’t move a muscle, trying to look like an extension of the log. The wren’s nearly at my feet when it senses an unusual presence and flicks a little way off to continue its rummaging, but not before I get my best-ever view of its subtly variegated dead-leaf colours and the stiff little cocked tail.
Now a moorhen paddles slowly by in the river and a male blackcap sings from a branch – so close that its pure fluting song is almost too piercing. After an hour of immobility, I’m almost a woodland feature. A seven-spot ladybird lands on my hand, some wood ants investigate my boots, and the wren makes another pass, more boldly this time. And now a butterfly settles right next to me in a patch of sunlight – a male orange-tip. What a beauty! This is the first I’ve seen this year and it really does capture the spirit of spring with those sunshine orange flashes on its wings. Soon there will be lots of them on the wing searching out their favourite plants, garlic mustard and lady’s smock, both them just coming into flower with perfect timing. The orange-tip’s Latin name is Anthocharis, flower grace, and the French call it L’aurore, the dawn, a nice suggestion of a new beginning.
Some people walk by just the other side of the river, another interesting species that doesn’t notice me, or much else. There’s a move to re-wild our landscapes, but I emerge from my immersion in nature feeling that we could all do with some rewilding ourselves. We’re part of nature too.
Village Voices Nature Note: The Grail Moth
I had one of these WOW moments last month with a wonderful moth I had long dreamed of finding. It has the magnificent name of the Clifden Nonpareil: Clifden after Cliveden by the Thames near Maidenhead, where it was first found in the eighteenth century (later famous for another reason as the trysting place of John Profumo and Christine Keeler – remember them?); and Nonpareil meaning ‘Incomparable’, which is exactly what it is. I’d never seen anything like it. It’s a huge moth, the size of a bat or a small bird. When it has its wings closed it can rest perfectly camouflaged on a tree trunk, but when disturbed it flashes the wings open to reveal a brilliant violet-blue band, startling enough to confuse any potential predator. Hence it’s other English name of ‘Blue Underwing’ and its German name Blaues Ordensband (the Blue Ribbon). We have Yellow Underwing and Red Underwing moths that perform the same trick. They too are attractive and quite common. But the Clifden Nonpareil is in a quite different class, partly because of its size and exquisite beauty, but partly also because of its great rarity. It was never widespread in Britain, but by the 1960s it had become extinct here, following the replacement of the large stands of aspen and poplar in the southern counties with the conifer plantations favoured by the Forestry Commission at the time. The Nonpareil’s larvae (caterpillars) feed on the leaves of these poplars and depend on them, but no one thought about that, of course. For some fifty years, therefore, it disappeared altogether and it’s only recently that it has started to turn up again in small numbers, so adding to its special cachet.
Well, there it was in my moth trap one misty September morning. Large as life and unmistakeable. I couldn’t believe I’d finally seen one. I touched it tentatively with a finger. It flashed me a blue alert and off it flew, like a dream that fades on waking.