In quiet pursuit of a colour­ful quarry

For­mer gen­er­a­tions, armed with a net and a jar, en­joyed col­lect­ing Bri­tain’s once-nu­mer­ous but­ter­flies

The Field - - CONTENTS - writ­ten BY david tomlinson

David Tomlinson re­mem­bers when but­ter­flies were nu­mer­ous

It was some­thing of a co­nun­drum. There, basking in the sun, was a won­der­ful, golden-winged comma, the first I had ever seen, and a spec­i­men I was des­per­ate to catch for my col­lec­tion. There was only one prob­lem. It was in a net­tlebed and if I was to catch it, I would un­doubt­edly get badly stung. To make mat­ters worse, I was wear­ing my usual but­ter­fly-hunt­ing out­fit of shorts and a T-shirt. I gave the mat­ter all of five sec­onds con­sid­er­a­tion be­fore plung­ing into the net­tles, catch­ing my prize with the first sweep of my net.

That mem­o­rable in­ci­dent took place more than half a cen­tury ago and al­though I can re­mem­ber the tri­umph of cap­ture, I’ve no rec­ol­lec­tion of the pain I must have en­dured. Re­mark­ably, I still have that spec­i­men, com­plete with a tiny data card on its pin on which, in my neat­est minia­ture hand­writ­ing, I recorded the date and place of cap­ture. I took my but­ter­fly col­lect­ing se­ri­ously and, as a re­sult, be­came some­thing of a teenage but­ter­fly ex­pert. I knew, for ex­am­ple, that my comma was of the va­ri­ety

hutchin­soni, pro­duced by early spring cater­pil­lars and not one of the darker in­sects typ­i­cal of late sum­mer.

My col­lec­tion was never large as, un­like more se­ri­ous lep­i­dopter­ists, I wasn’t in­ter­ested in long runs of spec­i­mens of the same species: a few rep­re­sen­ta­tive spec­i­mens of each but­ter­fly was all I was af­ter. But for a few brief sum­mers of my child­hood, but­ter­fly hunt­ing be­came my pas­sion. Hot, sunny days dur­ing the sum­mer hol­i­days were never to be wasted, while wet or cloudy days were greeted with acute dis­ap­point­ment.

My fa­ther trav­elled fre­quently on busi­ness, so if he was go­ing in what I de­cided was a promis­ing di­rec­tion I would pack my bi­cy­cle in the boot of his Ze­phyr and go with him, cy­cling off in the coun­try­side in search of but­ter­flies. On the Ep­som Downs I found colonies of chalkhill blues, their wings

flash­ing sil­ver in the sun­light, while in the dap­pled glades of the New For­est I pur­sued white ad­mi­rals and the fascinating valez­ina form of the sil­ver-washed frit­il­lary.

Those days pro­duced many happy mem­o­ries. One of my favourite col­lect­ing grounds was at Down, in Kent, within a mile of where Charles Dar­win had writ­ten his On the Origin of Species barely a cen­tury be­fore. Here, the chalk hills of the North Downs sup­ported an abun­dance of but­ter­flies and at ev­ery step I would flush meadow browns and ringlets, com­mon blues and skip­pers. These I would largely ig­nore, as my quarry was the elu­sive, fast-fly­ing, dark­green frit­il­lary. Even the sight of one of these mag­nif­i­cent in­sects was suf­fi­cient to raise the heart rate, while a suc­cess­ful cap­ture was a real tri­umph.

On another oc­ca­sion, a friend re­ported see­ing a fast-fly­ing yel­low but­ter­fly in a clover field just a few miles from home. I ped­alled over as fast as I could, con­fi­dent that the yel­low but­ter­fly was one of a late­sum­mer in­va­sion of clouded yel­lows. I was right and the field was alive with them, sev­eral of which were cap­tured suc­cess­fully for my col­lec­tion. I’ve never seen a big­ger con­cen­tra­tion of clouded yel­lows in this coun­try since, but equally mem­o­rable was the flock of 60 tur­tle doves flushed from the same field. To­day, the tur­tle-dove pop­u­la­tion has col­lapsed and such num­bers are un­think­able; we’re un­likely to ever see them again.

Pursuit and cap­ture were only part of the story. The but­ter­flies I caught were brought home to be set, us­ing home­made, pa­per­cov­ered cork­boards. Set­ting a but­ter­fly cor­rectly is an art: it is a pre­cise and some­times dif­fi­cult job, es­pe­cially with del­i­cate species such as a wood white or small skip­per. Not only do the wings have to be spread ex­actly the same each side but it is im­por­tant that the an­ten­nae are care­fully po­si­tioned, too. At first I used pins from my mother’s sewing box but I soon grad­u­ated to proper black en­to­mo­log­i­cal pins bought from spe­cial­ist sup­plier Watkins & Don­caster.

With the cap­ture of my but­ter­flies came the thirst to learn more about my quarry. I bor­rowed from the library EB Ford’s clas­sic

But­ter­flies, from the New Nat­u­ral­ist se­ries, pub­lished in 1945, which I de­voured page by page. I was in­spired by WS Cole­man’s

Bri­tish But­ter­flies. My copy was pub­lished in 1886 when, re­mark­ably, it was al­ready into its 18th edi­tion, re­flect­ing the en­thu­si­asm of the Vic­to­ri­ans for but­ter­fly col­lect­ing. No­table col­lec­tors in­cluded such fig­ures as renowned big-game hunter Fred­er­ick C Selous, re­as­sur­ing me that I wasn’t as ec­cen­tric as some of my friends sug­gested. In­trigu­ingly, both Neville Cham­ber­lain and Win­ston Churchill were but­ter­fly col­lec­tors.

ex­pand­ing col­lec­tion

Though but­ter­fly col­lect­ing may have been the pas­sion of my early teens, my in­ter­est in but­ter­flies has never left me and on oc­ca­sions new but­ter­flies have been added to my col­lec­tion. I bought a fold­ing net, one that can eas­ily be pock­eted, and this has ac­com­pa­nied me on nu­mer­ous over­seas trips. The net is an es­sen­tial piece of equip­ment for all se­ri­ous but­ter­fly en­thu­si­asts, as there are many species that are tricky, some­times im­pos­si­ble, to iden­tify un­less in the hand (in re­al­ity, a glass-topped pill box).

Once, on a cy­cling hol­i­day in the Brenne in cen­tral France, I found black-veined whites in abun­dance. This is an in­ter­est­ing and beau­ti­ful but­ter­fly. It be­came ex­tinct in Bri­tain al­most 100 years ago. To this day no one knows why but all at­tempts to rein­tro­duce it have failed. I de­cided to catch one for my col­lec­tion but felt rather guilty do­ing so. The next day, cy­cling in the coun­try­side, I saw dozens of dead black-veined whites, all struck by pass­ing cars.

Cy­cling in the Brenne I found black-veined whites in abun­dance

But­ter­fly col­lect­ing gen­er­ally has lit­tle or no im­pact on but­ter­fly num­bers. But­ter­flies are short lived. Some, such as the blues, live only a few days. The long­est-lived is the brim­stone, which may sur­vive as an adult for months, though most of that time is in hi­ber­na­tion. But­ter­flies all breed al­most as soon as they take their first flight, so cap­tur­ing and killing adults rarely has any im­pact on a pop­u­la­tion. There are, of course, ex­cep­tions and in the UK the law quite rightly pro­tects our rarest species. These are the swal­low­tail, large blue, heath and high brown frit­il­lary and the large cop­per. In ad­di­tion, it’s il­le­gal to sell with­out a li­cence a fur­ther 21 species, rang­ing from the pur­ple em­peror to the che­quered skip­per, un­less they were bred from cap­tive stock. It should also be re­mem­bered that sev­eral of our scarcer species are only found on na­ture re­serves, where col­lect­ing is for­bid­den.

How­ever, un­like col­lect­ing birds’ eggs, but­ter­fly col­lect­ing hasn’t been out­lawed in the UK and it re­mains a le­git­i­mate pursuit. The real threat to our but­ter­flies comes not from col­lec­tors but from the usual prob­lems of agri­cul­tural in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion, aban­don­ment, cli­mate change, changes in wood­land man­age­ment and tourism and re­cre­ation.

rab­bit de­pen­dent

It’s many years since the ac­tiv­i­ties of col­lec­tors threat­ened our na­tive but­ter­flies. True, sev­eral species be­came ex­tinct in the UK dur­ing the past cen­tury, no­tably the large blue, large tor­toise­shell and black-veined white, but none due to the ac­tiv­ity of col­lec­tors. It was con­ser­va­tion­ists who did for the large blue, mis­tak­enly fenc­ing off the last colony from rab­bits. Iron­i­cally, it was the grass-crop­ping rab­bits that cre­ated the per­fect habi­tat for the red ants on which the large blue de­pends for its com­pli­cated life­style.

How­ever, it has to be ad­mit­ted that col­lec­tors played a part in the large blue’s de­cline in the 19th cen­tury. One of the but­ter­fly’s most fa­mous lo­ca­tions was Barn­well Wold, near Oun­dle in Northamp­ton­shire, where the Rev­erend Wil­liam Bree first dis­cov­ered it. (Many no­table but­ter­fly col­lec­tors were cler­gy­men.) Ac­cord­ing to my copy of Cole­man, “it is less abun­dant there than formerly, from the re­peated at­tacks of col­lec­tors, who catch all they find”. In those days there were pro­fes­sional col­lec­tors who sold their catch on, and a Bri­tish-caught large blue was worth a good sum of money.

I’m one of the last gen­er­a­tion of school­boy but­ter­fly col­lec­tors, for by the 1970s the em­pha­sis was mov­ing to pho­tog­ra­phy and col­lect­ing and killing was now viewed with sus­pi­cion. Once, all books on but­ter­flies car­ried ad­vice on nets and killing jars but this soon dis­ap­peared. And, of course, there are now far fewer but­ter­flies in our coun­try­side than there were in my youth. It’s hard to be­lieve to­day the abun­dance of but­ter­flies I en­coun­tered in my net-wield­ing years. To see such num­bers to­day you have to go to Eastern Europe, where the im­pact of the CAP is still limited.

In re­cent years I’ve trav­elled to Bul­garia in June where I’ve en­joyed a ver­i­ta­ble feast of but­ter­flies. Bul­garia is one of just five Euro­pean coun­tries that can boast more than 200 dif­fer­ent species – the oth­ers are Italy (264), France (244), Spain (243) and Greece (230). We have a mere 55. In a rel­a­tively re­laxed week’s but­ter­fly watch­ing in Bul­garia I ex­pect to see close to 100 species, in­clud­ing such spec­tac­u­lar spec­i­mens as apollo, po­plar ad­mi­ral and the elu­sive Freyer’s pur­ple em­peror. It’s a but­ter­fly par­adise.

How­ever, don’t ask me whether Bul­garia’s but­ter­flies are pro­tected be­cause I don’t know. I’ve given up my net and now ven­ture out equipped with a dig­i­tal SLR cam­era, equipped with a long but close-fo­cus­ing lens. The pursuit is of­ten as frus­trat­ing as it was in my col­lect­ing days. Last year I had a great view of a Freyer’s pur­ple em­peror, my first ever, but it was away be­fore I could get my lens pointed at it. The year be­fore the same thing hap­pened with a south­ern comma, and that re­mains the only one I have ever seen.

There’s no doubt that se­cur­ing a good pho­to­graph is in many ways just as re­ward­ing as col­lect­ing ever was, and there’s the added bonus that I can share my tro­phies much more widely. Where once I would hurry home from a day’s col­lect­ing to set my but­ter­flies, I now down­load my pic­tures to my ipad. What’s more, when I’m abroad I can even email the pho­to­graphs to friends who can help with the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the more ob­scure or tricky species. It is, of course, a change for the bet­ter but I ad­mit that there are still times when I han­ker af­ter my net.

Once, all books on but­ter­flies car­ried ad­vice on nets and killing jars

Above: the clouded yel­low (Co­lias cro­ceus) ar­rives from North Africa and South­ern Europe. Right: white ad­mi­ral (Li­meni­tis camilla), a wood­land species

Left: the black-veined white (Apo­ria crataegi) is now ex­tinct in the UK

Right: males of the beau­ti­ful pur­ple em­peror

(Apatura iris) are re­ferred to as “His Majesty”

Look quickly to spot the high brown frit­il­lary

(Arg­yn­nis adippe) fly­ing swiftly over bracken

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