Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Lost Paradise

The reviews of 2012 in Butterfly magazine make dismal, in unsurprising, reading: it was a washout, the worst butterfly year on record, with numbers of most species dramatically down, and one of two now teetering dangerously close to extinction (Black Hairstreak numbers were down by a staggering 98%). As cool, wet weather returns - not for long, one hopes - it's good to look back to past times, when our patchwork countryside of fields and hedgerows, chalk downland, heath and moor and manged woodland was home to an abundance of butterflies almost beyond belief. 
Writing in the 1820s, J.F. Stephens recalls a butterfly-hunting excursion to Surrey:
'The boundless profusion with which the hedgerows for miles, in the vicinity of Ripley, were enlivened by myriads [of White-Letter Hairstreaks] that hovered over every flower and bramble blossom, last July, exceeded anything of the kind that I have ever witnessed.' He adds (rather chillingly to modern ears), 'Some notion of their numbers may be formed when I mention that I captured, without moving from the spot, nearly 200 specimens in less than half an hour.' Yes, that's the White-Letter Hairstreak, now scarce and seldom seen, living its life in the treetops - it seems to have been a more gregarious, as well as numerous, species back in the 1820s.
Then there's the great butterfly man F.W. Frohawk writing about collecting in the New Forest
in the 1890s. Silver-Washed Fritillaries were then so abundant 'that it was common to see forty or more assembled on the blossoms of a large bramble bush, in company with many White Admirals, Meadow Browns, Ringlets, and here and there among the swarm one or two of ab. Valesina. When the congregation was disturbed, they would rise in a fluttering mass and the majority would again settle to continue their feast on the sweet blossoms of the bramble.'
My father, who used to go butterfly hunting in the New Forest in the Thirties, might have seen similar sights. Now they seem like visions of a lost paradise, or something from a dream...


  1. Indeed. The last time I remember seeing any kind of general abundance of butterflies (on nothing like a 19th-century scale of course) was in the scorching summer of 1976. That was before the global warming of course - in fact I think we were heading for an ice age back then, those of us lucky enough to survive the global famines caused by overpopulation...