In quiet pursuit of a colourful quarry
Former generations, armed with a net and a jar, enjoyed collecting Britain’s once-numerous butterflies
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.
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.
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