Some years ago, I picked up a paperback copy of The Butterfly Isles, by Patrick Barkham, in my local library for the amazingly cheap price of 10p. It recounts a nature lover’s quest for every British species of butterfly in one year. Before I read this book, I classed every butterfly as either ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’.
A small white I could reasonably guess at as they are, yes, small and white. A tortoiseshell, peacock and red admiral, while stunningly colourful and beautiful, looked the same to me and as for a swallowtail, wasn’t that an accessory attached to a swallow’s body?
But over the last few years, through practical observation, guidance, and books, I began to learn about the various breeds, their colours and patterns, habitat and food. I began to distinguish between a red admiral and a peacock and an orange tip and a small white. Although there is still a long way to go and I am still very much a novice when it comes to learning about nature.
According to Patrick, there are 59 Butterfly species in Britain, more than 500 in Europe, 7,000 in South America and oh, only about 18,000 in the world in total!
And one of the rarest in this country is the flamboyant Swallowtail. Pale yellow and black wings, with a black margin around them, its hindwings have short tails and a blue and red fake eye.
There are plenty of good reasons to visit the Norfolk Broads, but if you are a keen lepidopterist (someone who studies butterflies and moths) or general nature lover and it’s June, odds are you will want to spot the elusive Swallowtail. It’s a tight window to see them and Norfolk is the only V. I.P venue they will wish to appear to their fans.
Their habitat is marshy meadows so the likes of the Fens and Broads are its natural habitats.
So we – Simon and I – were in Norfolk, at the end of June. Like super fans waiting for a glimpse of our favourite star, while we walked and explored and steered a boat on the Broads, ate out in pub gardens and even when sitting in our cottage backyard, playing a game of draughts (me, losing, yet again), we were always on the lookout.
It was during a prolonged heatwave and there was hardly a breeze. The conditions could not be better. And we glimpsed many dragonflies and damselflies, heard warblers and sighted marsh harriers and grey lag geese and lost count of the various meadow browns and painted ladies and speckled woods and small whites fluttering by along the reeds.
But no Swallowtail.
Towards the end of the week-long break, we came across a sign advertising Wildlife Cruises at Horsey Mere.
Well, why not?
So, after a short walk, we boarded the small vessel and listened eagerly to the guide who told us that he hoped we would see a swallowtail today.
And the odd thing is we were convinced that if we were lucky enough to spot one, it would be during a walk at a nature reserve (Patrick Barkham saw his at Hickling Broad Nature Reserve, one of the sites we visited).
And it was on that boat, listening to the chatty wildlife guide telling us about his mother’s experience with the dreaded horse flies, that I saw a black shape glide in the air in the far distance.
Was it a bird? Was it a bat? Was it…
‘It’s a swallowtail!’ The couple next to me alerted us all.
Poor Simon! He was at the other side of the vessel looking in the opposite direction. By the time he was over, the large butterfly, which seemed almost like a bird to me, was gone.
‘You saw a swallowtail and I didn’t,’ Simon grudgingly said, with envy in his voice.
But then there was a loud exclamation – from Simon, no less.
As you can see from the lack of personal pictures, I did not manage to capture either of the two moments on film. Nor did Simon. But we do count ourselves very lucky to see this rare butterfly.
Many species of butterfly are in decline so if you have a garden, even a balcony or window box, I’d strongly suggest researching plants to attract them. It’s good for your health and soul too to see such beauty near you! And of course, butterflies are vital for the ecosystem. They aren’t just a pretty face (well, wing). I’ll go into more detail in a later blog post, but some ideas for now are buddleja, marjoram, sweet william, ivy and bird’s foot trefoil.
Have you seen a rare butterfly? Do you have a favourite?
Facts of the Day
1. Swallowtail adults live for about a month.
2. It’s larval food plant are milk parsley, fennel and carrot.
3. The wingspan measures about 80 to 90mm.
Many thanks to Sally Morgan’s The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Butterflies and Moths, Patrick Barkham’s The Butterfly Isles and Wildlife Gardening by Christine and Michael Lavelle.