Much of my time at the moment is devoted to orchids, the places in which they’re found, and the people involved with plants and places alike. While that’s my primary focus these days, it wasn’t always thus.
I’ve been a faithful birder for as long as I can remember, and those that know me well will attest to my thing for orchids; but over the years I’ve also flirted with sea mammals, dallied with cowries, and had close encounters with moths aplenty. My first love though was butterflies. I was incredibly fortunate to be at school with one of the sons of the founder of Worldwide Butterflies, Robert Goodden, and became firm friends with both his sons and his daughter (the talented artist Sally Goodden).
With Robert’s encouragement my nascent interest in butterflies flourished. I became obsessed with them – seeing as many different species of them as possible soon wasn’t enough for me, and I set about breeding as many of them in captivity as I practically could in an assortment of homemade rearing cages – I swiftly upgraded from unsatisfactory jam jars to old ice cream cartons, and then on to larger stuff – my Slow Worms were released back to the compost heap from whence they’d came and the old aquarium I had grandly described as their vivarium became a deluxe caterpillar rearing station.
Over the next few years it housed all sorts of colourful things beyond the inevitable Small Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals and Peacocks – Holly Blues, Orange-tips, Small Coppers, Clouded Yellows, Marbled Whites… and then onto grander fare, Silver-washed and Dark Green Fritillaries, Swallowtails and, one memorable year, White Admirals – their spiky, funky caterpillars were my favourites of all.
(This spiky chap in the photo is a Silver-washed Fritillary from a brood I reared years ago).
The feeling of joy releasing the freshly emerged butterflies was intense for a young boy – I’d not only accomplished something that was relatively technically challenging, but had played a small part in creating something beautiful – gorgeous butterflies that, protected from the vicissitudes of predation, parasitism or simple mischance whilst caterpillars, had emerged safely in my care and could augment their brethren in the wild.
My love of butterflies has never waned. Beside my bed is a framed print from one of my all-time favourite natural history books, the epic folio “Natural History of British Butterflies” written and illustrated by F.W.Frohawk. To create this, the first comprehensive study of every stage of the lifecycle of every species of British butterfly, Frohawk bred them all himself in captivity. Needless to say, he was a bit of a hero of mine as a kid.
My chosen print is of the king of all the British butterflies, His Imperial Majesty – the Purple Emperor. My favourite of all – and I’m not alone in worshipping this most majestic of insects.
Matthew Oates has been in thrall to butterflies for decades too – and I’ve lately been taking a break from the orchids to read his recently published memoir, “In Pursuit of Butterflies: A Fifty-Year Affair“.
This is natural history writing of the highest order – it’s a modern classic – an evocative, beautiful, acutely observed and wryly humorous account of one man’s life watching, studying and championing Britain’s impoverished butterfly fauna.
(Compared to the continent we have a meagre selection of species – I’m only a few chapters into it and haven’t discovered yet whether Matthew spreads his wings further afield – and I think if he had visited the Picos de Europa in northern Spain he would have probably spontaneously combusted!)
I’ve seen parallel after parallel between his early experiences and mine growing up in rural Somerset and Dorset – his account of pursuing Clouded Yellows exactly mirrored mine, right down to the net we both used in those halcyon childhood days:
“…the Clouded Yellows were in: I caught one of those golden speedsters in a pink shrimping net in a wildflower combe that has long since been converted into a cereal field.”
Above all, what comes through in Matthew’s luminous prose is his love of butterflies and the British countryside’s myriad facets. This is a book I simply don’t want to finish. I love it.