In late August the two buddleia on the south side of the house are thronged with butterflies, fluttering by and supping with relish, and it’s easy to understand why this plant is usually referred to as the ‘butterfly bush’. Especially plentiful are Red Admirals, Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshell. I always thought Red Admirals were so called because of their stripes but I may have been mistaken, because elsewhere I’ve read that they were originally called ‘Admirable’ because of their bright colours; in fact in most of the ones we see the reds are closer to a deep orange. The Peacock is aptly named due to its distinctive eye-spots while the Small Tortoiseshell has alternating light and dark stripes on the leading edge of the wings, though it never stops long enough for me to spy the blue half-rounds on the trailing edges.
There’s also Painted Lady and Small Garden White in evidence, and when the south of the house is warmed up in the evening the wall is alive with butterflies sunning themselves. Over the years we’ve also noted examples in our part of the world of Orange Tip, Silver-Washed Fritillary, Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown and Ringlet; unfortunately for us these are only a fraction of the fifty once-common butterflies that are mentioned.
The text is redolent of a bygone era — not surprising as the Reverend Charles Albert Hall was born in 1872, though Know Your Butterflies only appeared in 1970. He seems to have been a keen naturalist, authoring introductions to British wild flowers, birds, trees and pond life as well as butterflies. The introductory essay covers most of what we need to know about these winged insects, including the parts of their bodies, stages in their life-cycle, strategies to escape predation and the essential differences with moths. The body of the work consists of short paragraphs, two to a page, with paintings of the relevant two insects on the opposite page. The fine illustrations are by Richard Ward and show each example seen at rest from above, wings open to display their distinctive patterns and charming backgrounds — these might be a decaying log, a plant (such as nettle) or a blue sky powdered with clouds. Hall’s commentary illustrates his patent love for his subjects: “There is difficulty in identifying the COMMA butterfly, which has wing margins giving the appearance of having been nibbled … The larva [of Garden Whites] feeds on cabbage, often doing dire mischief to the plant … The PEACOCK is among our most handsome species … Unfortunately the CAMBERWELL BEAUTY, with its dark chocolate-brown wings, bordered with creamy-white, is only too rare in this country…”
There will be countless other illustrated guides, both in print and online, to butterflies in Britain and around the world, choc-a-bloc with colour photographs, all vying to present the creatures more vividly than the last publication. Know Your Butterflies, though unable to compete for sheer shininess, nevertheless retains a charm that will be missing in the more up-to-date guides.
In a shady wood in southern England I once encountered a butterfly that twice settled on my hand for a length of time, probing my skin with its proboscis. It reminded me of the story of the 13th-century Bishop of Winchester, Peter des Roches, who had the power of opening his hand to reveal a butterfly as testimony to his having met and spoken to the legendary King Arthur. We’re not told what kind of butterfly was involved, but I like to think it was a Purple Emperor — no doubt the same that attempted to feed off my hand — and which I incorporated into a short story. The Reverend Hall explains in his inimitable way why this particularly insect is something special:
The PURPLE EMPEROR is a truly regal butterfly with all the magnificence of an emperor. The male is brown on the upper surface with a rich purple lustre. The female lacks the purple sheen. His throne is in the forest glade, on the outermost spray on the top of an oak tree; there he brooks no rival. His flight is about the tops of trees and only seldom does he come to earth, where he settles occasionally on carrion, the juices of which he treats as a delicacy. In my boyhood I used often to see this species in woods in Northamptonshire, but never an individual came within range of my net. Certainly not an easy insect to capture…
British butterflies may lack the exotic looks and the diverse shapes and sizes of their cousins in tropical lands and faraway continents, but it’s their unstated subtleties that Hall seems to want us to delight in, even though we may not nowadays share his Victorian enthusiasm for collecting and displaying the poor specimens.