, via Wikimedia Commons”]It’s the Easter weekend and it’s cold and a bit wet – not ideal weather for butterflies. So far, in east Northants this year, I’ve seen commas, peacocks, speckled woods, brimstones and orange tips. It’s a start.
Through the year I will hope to see white admirals, black hairstreaks, purple emperors, white admirals, purple hairstreaks and many more species in my regular haunts and If I see those species and many of the commoner ones then I’ll feel pretty happy about it because it will have been a pretty good year for my local butterfly spotting.
But I am in no way a butterfly expert and I dabble rather than immerse myself in the world of butterflies. My expectations are shaped by my recent experience of butterflies in my local area, just as we all get used to what we know.
Scientists have a name for this – shifting baselines. The thing is that we all have a personal and limited window through which we look at wildlife populations – our own lives and our own localities. When wildlife populations are changing then we see out little bits of those changes. This applies to species which are increasing or decreasing but a book I was given as a birthday p[resent made me realise what I was missing because my baseline had shifted from that of earlier Northants naturalists.
Martin Izzard’s excellent book, The History of Butterfly Recording in Northamptonshire 1820-2011, is an account of which species were where back before even the Victorian past.
Over the last 30 years there have been 35-37 butterfly species seen each year in Northants which compares with 52-53 species in 1902. In a century a third of the species have been lost from this county.
Gone are the days when large blues, black-veined whites and Mazarine blues flew the Northants air. It was fascinating to see the names of familiar villages associated with the names of unfamiliar butterflies. Silver-studded blues and graylings were familiar locally to the Oundle School Natural History Society in 1937. Sywell had its Mazarine blues and Barnwell Wold had its large blues, silver-spotted skippers and black-veined whites. What places these must have been back then – and how I would enjoy their nature now if it were still there!
And it’s not just that there was a longer species list, alongside that it is clear that some of these lost species were common or even abundant. There is precious little trace of their existence now – our baselines have shifted. In fact, lifting a glass to the lost butterflies of Northamptonshire should be an annual event in the Chequered Skipper pub and restaurant which is located near to where this butterfly was present in the county up until 1971.
But even though the weather is dull today and the butterflies are sparser than in the distant past there is much to which to look forward over the summer months. And the perspective given by Martin Izzard’s book will make those expected summer sightings all the more prized.