You will probably know, this year’s Big Butterfly Count is on. It only takes 15 minutes and can be done anywhere there might be a few butterflies, and you can do as many ‘counts’ as you like. I may have cheated this week, when I did one trotting down a lane past downland banks of chalk grassland and then between hedgerows (you can cover a lot of ground in 15 minutes on a horse; indeed, two separate habitats!) The air and grass either side of my horse’s ears was full of butterflies and I couldn’t resist. Horseshoe vetch, bedstraws, harebell and agrimony revealed meadow browns and marbled whites like slivers of icing from a bakewell tart, whilst the bramble roses, a few last dog roses and honeysuckle scrambling over the hawthorn gifted tortoiseshells, whites, a couple of commas, little orange and brown gatekeepers and two amber, blowsy, silver-washed fritillaries. It made my day.
Evoking the spirit of the Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild, we have also done counts wherever we are, when we’ve had a moment – walking along the Test Way and waiting for the bus – although, we had to stop, 11 minutes in, to hop aboard.
Butterflies have fascinated us for millennia; we have hunted them, collected them, pinned, painted and written about them. Like flowers come to animated life, butterflies bring us joy; and to consider their various and complicated life-cycles is nothing short of wonder. Some migrate huge bird-distances: most red admirals from Europe, painted ladies and clouded yellows from as far as Africa and each must undergo a complete metamorphoses, hanging itself up while a chrysalis breaks from under the skin, hardens into a casket that often glisters with gold, while the animal inside melts itself down, to reform into an entirely different (and beautiful) creature.
Each summer, we have dusted off our ‘butterfly bungalow’, emailed www.insectlore.co.uk to order some painted lady caterpillars and have watched the whole incredible show, by slow increments, until a curl of damp black, orange and white silk, unfurls from its split and now pale, prehistoric-looking casket to pump blood through new wings, opening and closing them like a book.
In an article in The Guardian recently, Patrick Barkham, author of the celebrated Butterfly Isles, considers three new, literary books on butterflies. Each speaks of the joy butterflies bring. I particularly want to read Mike McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm (something we once commonly drove through on summer nights). He and Barkham note how shocking then and puzzling, that we are a country with just 59 or so species of butterfly, a country ‘wealthier and more tolerant’ than ever before and yet has, ‘since the Beatles broke up … annihilated half its biodiversity’. Joy and wonder, apparently, is not enough.
At RSPB Winterbourne Downs, two newly created butterfly banks dug out of the chalk, gleam white and purposeful, like freshly created hill forts, or a contemporary take on Silbury Hill; that strange and evocative, manmade hill not far from here (and that Adam Thorpe has recently written so revealingly and tenderly about in On Silbury Hill). Here is an ancient-modern, living monument to butterflies. One bank is so fresh, it is blinding; you cannot look upon it; the nearest one is three-years old and beginning to colour with flowers. It has had care and help. Bare chalk remains so for a long time – the horrible giant’s cleft into Twyford Down when the M3 was extended in the early 1990’s remained a visible white scar in the landscape for well over a decade.
Built in a tall south-facing horseshoe, these celebratory, life-saving and life-enhancing butterfly banks are tracked by the sun the summer long. Here are marbled whites, burnet and cinnabar moths, skippers, blues and the first dark green fritillary I have ever knowingly seen: all lively, jewelled flakes of powdered, iridescent scales – the alchemy that exists between the sun and flowers. These are creatures that matter as much as love and justice and beauty. Can we stand to lose them? Go, get counting.