Sunday book review – In Pursuit of Butterflies by Matthew Oates


Matthew Oates has worked for the National Trust for ever and is one of the country’s leading experts on butterflies.  With this book, he becomes a leading writer about them too.

The book is a celebration of British butterflies and is an account of butterfly days going back for over fifty years.  Do you remember the hot summer of 1976? I do, it was my gap-year before university, and I revelled in day after day of sunshine. You’d think that butterflies would like a scorcher of a summer but, of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that, and the chapter about 1977, the aftermath of the drought year, fascinated me. I was then at university and completely unaware of what was happening in the world of butterflies. That Matthew Oates can reach so far back in time, and write as though he remembers it perfectly, is thanks to detailed diaries that he kept from the early 1970s.  The accounts are quite splendid and, as the author says in his introduction, although the topic is serious, cheerfulness keeps breaking through. The book is, at times, really quite funny.

The purple emperor, on which Oates is an acknowledged expert (perhaps the acknowledged expert) features prominently in the book, and I enjoyed his visits to my local Fermyn Woods where I’ll be looking for these butterflies in a few weeks time.

There was more rushing around with a butterfly net than I expected, and more (slightly dull, to this bird-man) talk of different varieties of particular species, but any naturalist will find this book interesting and an enjoyable read. There are plenty of personal anecdotes and experiences, encounters with other butterfly men (and a few women) and lots of joy over, and information about, butterflies.

It’s summer – it’s butterfly time! Go out and get this book to read on the inevitable rainy days of summer. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

In Pursuit of Butterflies by Matthew Oates is published by Bloomsbury.

Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery will also be published by Bloomsbury at the end of July.


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