Yesterday I paid a late morning visit to Fermyn Woods in east Northants. Mine was the 21st car parked on the grass verge on a small quiet road. Clearly others had the same idea, and a bit of time to spare. The stickers on the parked cars showed that there were plenty of birders there – most of the other visitors seemed to be fellow RSPB members and there were a few of the much rarer BTO logos displayed too.
A couple of red kites circled above the glider field using thermals that no human pilot shared today. But to think that we had come primarily to look for birds would be wrong. No, it was the plethora of Butterfly Conservation logos on the parked cars that would have pointed any puzzled passer-by in the right direction for the object of our quest.
The woodland ride down which I walked looked unexceptional. It is the memory of past successes rather than the particularly inviting nature of this ride that brings me back every year on a sunny day in early July.
A rather worn speckled wood bounced in flight above the hard-core path but we hard-core butterfly seekers weren’t paying too much attention to it. And a few white butterflies gathered briefly at a puddle but neither those nor the skippers on the brambles, nor the dark chocolate ringlets were our quarry. Meadow browns flew above the grassy patches and I was pleased to see a small tortoiseshell but none of these was the point of the quest.
Red admirals scooted quickly about and were joined by patrolling white admirals – this was more like it! White admirals are scarce butterflies found quite widely but not commonly in southern England and it’s always a pleasure to see them in the local woods. But not quite the exquisite pleasure I was seeking alongside others.
Although when I say ‘alongside’ I am not quite telling the truth as although there were plenty of us in Fermyn Woods yesterday I stayed close to the entrance and pretty much had a few hundred yards of path to myself except when a returning butterfly seeker walked back to his (they were all men that I saw – butterflies seem to be even more male-dominated, or should we say female-light? than birds) car. These returnees gave me information about how well ‘they’ were showing at the second crossroads a few minutes up the path but I stayed on my little patch hoping to find my own royalty. For although the admirals and skippers were very welcome I was there for the emperors – the clearly acknowledged rulers of these woods for a few days in early July – purple emperors.
And, yes, I saw them with their great sweeping powerful wing beats and haughty demeanour. Most of my sightings were of royalty passing by, high up, at maybe 25 feet above me, but occasionally one would deign to stoop down to human level and sweep past apparently expecting a bow from me.
I would gladly doff my cap, my Navajo Bridge condor cap, and incline my head to the beauty of the emperors but I know that there are a couple of reasons why perhaps I should not.
First, this royalty has some dirty habits. One of the motives for male emperors to come down to my level on the path, to slum it with the common people, is that they seek out minerals and often find them on smelly things. What type of royalty is that? And, in the past, and actually in the present, butterfly seekers have provided rotting rabbit carcasses, overripe bananas and the leavings of dogs by the sides of such paths as this to tempt the purple nobility down to the realm of mere men. You have to temper your admiration for lepidopteran royalty if they have odd habits, don’t you?
And you have to raise at least a quizzical eyebrow over a bunch of men bringing dog droppings into a wood to attract insects – don’t you?
And there is a little bit of a question mark about whether this royalty belongs here at all. Local lore has it that the writer ‘BB’, Denys Watkins-Pitchford (and see here) introduced purple emperors into these woods some decades ago. Maybe they have never naturally been here (unlike the red kites circling above which were reintroduced after an absence of a century and a half). Certainly this royalty is at the northern edge of the purple emperors’ range in the UK.
When a male purple emperor landed in the sunlight near my feet and used its yellow proboscis to suck up the minerals from the path I cared not whether it was the thousandth generation of local royalty or whether it had been let out of a box a few moments ago. As it moved, the light caught its wings and one or the other, and sometimes both together, exploded with blue light. This is an impressive beast combining great beauty with the right amount of elusiveness to feel like a prize has been grasped when one tracks them down or they allow you an audience.
More than superficially resembling a white admiral, the purple emperor is in a class apart. It’s rather like the difference between buzzards and golden eagles. Before you see your first golden eagle you may look at lots of buzzards occasionally wondering whether that might be an eagle, but when you see an eagle it is just so much more powerful-looking, so much superior in manner and look, and so much ‘more’. So it is with the emperors – they ooze superiority and for a while at this time of year, despite the other butterflies, Fermyn Woods belongs to them and we come to pay homage and respect to their greatness.
But do remember that these are our woods, and that six months ago we were greatly exercised by their future. Back in January the emperors I saw yesterday were all larvae sitting up in sallow trees waiting for spring. Their future is not in their hands it is in ours. I wonder how that expert forestry panel is getting on. And I still believe that a Forest and Wildlife Service would give the Fermyn royalty a more secure future.