Yesterday I had the great pleasure of adjudicating the Big Butterfly Race between the Hampshire and Sussex branches of Butterfly Conservation which marked the start of the Big Butterfly Count (20th July – 11th August) which encourages everyone to go out and record butterflies.
I hadn’t taken part in a butterfly race before – my butterfly watching is normally done at a much more leisurely pace, strolling around Trust nature reserves such as St Catherine’s Hill, Noar Hill or Pamber Forest. However, it was clear from the off that this was an altogether more competitive and serious affair.
Team Wood White (led by Nick Baker) from Sussex tackled Hampshire, whilst Team Glanville Fritillary from Hampshire (led by Matthew Oates) scoured West Sussex. Our task was to find as many different species of butterfly in 8 hours as possible. One point for each adult, and an extra point for early stages (eggs, caterpillars or pupae). My job was to make sure that Team Wood White followed the rules, and I needed to see every butterfly myself and be convinced of the identification for it to count. My counterpart at Sussex Wildlife Trust, Tony Whitbread, oversaw the other team.
Grayling. Photo by ukbutterflies.co.uk
We jumped into the Land rovers at 9am and headed straight for Browndown where our target was the Grayling. In true “Treasure Hunt” style we ran up and down through the site, making sure we first got the Grayling and ticking off a dozen other species on the way including Small Skipper and Marbled White. We’d seen 13 species in the first 45 minutes – great start!
Next we tried to spot the elusive White-letter Hairstreak which is known to inhabit a patch of Elm trees alongside a busy dual-carriageway in Cosham. No such luck this time, and so we headed north to Broxhead Common.
Team Wood White planning our next move. Photo by Martin Warren
Zooming up the A3, slightly frustrated at having wasted time not seeing the White-letter hairstreak, we suddenly lost control of the Land rover and the back end span out. Amazingly our driver, Caroline, managed to control the spin but we did skid across two lanes of the A3, span round 360 degrees and ended up on the hard shoulder! Shaken, but not hurt, we all checked ourselves and the vehicle (thankfully, all ok) and moved on, this time rather less hurriedly!
The Silver-studded Blue we were looking for at Broxhead Common proved incredibly easy to spot, being seen as soon as we jumped out of the vehicles. Another two or three species on and our next task was to search for the big one – the Purple Emperor at Alice Holt Forest.
I’d never had a particularly good view of a Purple Emperor before. As an arboreal species that hangs out at the very top of mature trees such as Oak, one needs to look to the sky to see it. Four or five times I heard the shout “purple emperor – look, there!” but each time I missed it. Then one of the team took a very blurred photo to show me. However, as adjudicator (I was taking it seriously!), I wanted to be sure to see it with my own eyes, so I insisted we stayed a little longer. I could tell the team were a little irritated as time was of the essence – but eventually I did catch a fleeting glimpse (although it was rather unsatisfying). I marked it on our list, and we moved on to Straits Enclosure, just a mile or so down the road.
Purple Emperor. Photo by hantsiow-butterflies.org.uk
Here our targets included White Admiral, which we saw just a few of probably due to the extremely hot weather. By this time we were all a bit frazzled in the 30 degree heat, but determined to press on. Then, one of the team stopped and called “purple emperor, just here”. This time, it was sitting on a Sallow leaf, not too high up, gently fanning its wings. The view was stunning and for a short while we were all transfixed by the beauty and majesty of this magnificent butterfly, forgetting we were in a race and we’d already ticked it off the list! Nick Baker was particularly pleased as he’d missed it earlier and I know this brilliant view of the Purple Emperor made his day (and all of ours too!)
Harebell. Photo by plantlife.org.uk
We had now seen 25 species and our next venue was Old Winchester Hill to find Dark Green Fritillary. This wonderful chalk grassland site was full of delicate harebells, fragrant marjoram and swathes of scabious. We got the Fritillary immediately along with Chalkhill Blue and a few other species we’d already seen elsewhere. It was rather a shame not to spend more time on the Hill as the views were spectacular, but we were in a race!
By now we were running out of species, but the White-letter Hairstreak that had eluded us earlier was playing on the team’s mind and so we decided to drive back into the industrial edge of Portsmouth to try again. This time we spotted it within minutes!
Small Blue caterpillars on Kidney vetch. Photo by Butterfly Conservation
Feeling rather pleased, and now with an hour’s counting time left, we knew we probably needed a couple more points and so we decided to hunt for caterpillars of the Small Blue butterfly which feed on kidney vetch. As we were close to Paulsgrove Quarry we took a chance that there would be kidney vetch and possibly small blue caterpillars there. Sure enough, after just five minutes of hunting our target was found by Martin Warren!
Driving back to the meeting point in Bosham to confront the other team, we knew we had done pretty well – having seen an amazing 28 species and collecting 34 points. But we also knew the Hampshire team was full of incredibly experienced butterfly experts and so we thought they may well have outdone us on points by recording more of the early stages.
All day both teams had been followed by the BBC South Today team, along with Guardian journalist Patrick Barkham and we had all made full use of social media to tease each other on twitter about our latest scores. Tony and I, as adjudicators, checked and double-checked the results so that we could announce the winner live on television.
The BBC iplayer coverage is here – 15 minutes into the programme – if you want to see the results!
I’d like to thank Dan Danahar who organised the whole event and Neil Hulme who designed the route we took. It was great fun and we all learned to love butterflies just a little bit more (if that was possible!). The real goal of the event was to raise awareness about our colourful friends, and hopefully to inspire everyone to get out there and enjoy wildlife. And of course, the State of Nature Report reminds us just how threatened and vulnerable many of our butterflies are, and so we all need to do our bit to help save them.
Do take part in the Big Butterfly Count over the next couple of weeks, and make time to visit some of the stunning nature reserves managed by the Trust or our partner nature conservation organisations. And finally – please encourage butterflies and other wildlife into your garden by creating a wildlife-friendly haven at home.