Success…. Scottish Gems Found!

White-Letter Hairstreak

Our story begins in 2006, when we found White-letter Hairstreaks on our patch in the north western corner of Greater Manchester, and our short article for this find was included in the Lancashire Branch BC newsletter.

This was then subsequently read by Liz Goodyear, who along with Andrew Middleton, were already engaged in their extensive White-letter Hairstreak Project, for the UK distribution of this butterfly.

Liz contacted us to ask if we would check a randomly picked 2km square for them, as it was relatively local to us, but our imput was rather meagre, probably due to the lack of Elms, but Liz and Andrew kept in touch, with encouragement to carry on searching for this butterfly and its eggs. Due to this, our enthusiasm grew and although the project was nearing its end, our quest continued, with our yearly records being sent to them, as well as the appropriate county recorders.

Our personal challenge, was the distribution of the White-letter Hairstreak on the west side of the Pennines, with our finds taking us from Greater Manchester, through Lancashire and then up as far as north Cumbria. We also venture over the border into south west Scotland, but as yet, this little butterfly is eluding us there, though we will keep on trying!

Then the exciting news (with maybe a brief twinge of envy from us) that an adult White-letter Hairstreak had been found in August 2017, nectaring on Ragwort on the Scotland side of the R. Tweed near Paxton by Iain Cowe, the East Scotland Branch, Borders Recorder.

Headline news had been made! And well deserved for such an enthusiastic field worker!

Undeterred, we carried on our quest, just over the border in south west Scotland but without any signs that the White-letter Hairstreak had crossed the border.

Then in January, Andrew Middleton asked us if we would consider venturing over to the Paxton area to search for eggs and therefore proof of breeding if we did find any. Although our determined quest was south west Scotland, we felt quite honoured to be asked by Andrew and we decided to give the eastern side a go.

However, finding a window of favourable weather, without much rain, snow or ice for three or four days, to warrant travelling so far north and east, was causing us much frustration. Then a period from the 4th to 7th of February suggested a reasonable, if slightly risky window so we decided to chance it!

Arriving on the north bank of the R. Tweed just after 9am on a lovely sunny Sunday morning, we parked up by the bridge at Norham, with the aim, after having a bite to eat, of checking any reachable Elms here by the river and along the road to Coldstream, leaving the whole of the next day to check the Paxton area, as another sunny day was forecast.

We found nothing on the few Elms we could reach near the bridge or along the road and when reaching Lennel, just east of Coldstream we stopped to have a wander down a rough track, towards the R. Tweed.

We then walked left into the corner of a wood below a Rookery, and down to the riverside, where we immediately saw two nice looking Elms. These were a few metres apart and in a sunny aspect, just a few metres from the waters edge, with the upstream tree, which Jill decided to check, being on a slightly higher embankment than the down stream tree, with the latter holding grasses on parts of its lower branches, due to flood water in the recent past.

We were each at our chosen tree and after only a couple of minutes, Jill called to me with “Ken, have you got a minute?” I had said that if she wanted a lift with any of the branches, she should give me a shout, so I headed towards her tree. When getting closer, I could see that she had already got hold of a branch and was looking at one of the twigs.

Jill then glanced up and calmly said, “Don’t get too excited but I think that I could have something here”. I could see by the look on her face, as she was raising her hand lens, that she already knew exactly what she had found! I just couldn’t allow myself to believe what Jill was about to confirm at 15x magnification and already the adrenalin was causing me to shake as the seconds went into slow motion, before Jill said, “It is Ken, it is a White-letter egg and a little beauty, too!!”

Still shaking and with my hand lens at the ready, I then viewed the first “gem of an egg”, for Scotland!! We were both beaming with disbelief and delight at what Jill had just found and within seconds I was fumbling in my pack for the camera, then record shots were taken and the Grid Ref of NT854409 recorded in my notebook. There was also a need to mark the egg’s position with a bit of string loosely tied, a few centimetres up from this “priceless little gem” to ease the re-finding if we could get Iain Cowe, the butterfly recorder to the site. The egg was found at approx. 240cms off the ground.

The pressure was off, but we couldn’t wait to check for more eggs, with Jill carrying on checking her tree, whilst I went to my tree, and after a few minutes I found an old, hatched egg, meaning that the White-letter Hairstreak was already here in 2016.

A few minutes later I found another White-letter egg, but this time, one which was laid last year, with both of these eggs being found at approx. 180cms off the ground and well below the height of the recent flood water!

Unfortunately, we found no more eggs on these trees, so we left the site to cross the river via the bridge at Coldstream and of course, just into Northumberland.

We parked in a lay-by and walked back towards the bridge, with very little to check on a number of roadside Elms, but on one branch we could reach, Jill (whom I’ve named the 'Scotland’s Egging Queen') incredibly, found a White-letter Hairstreak egg, at Grid Ref NT849398. We took a record photo of the egg but forgot to tag it with a bit of string. We were once again, totally amazed that we had found another egg, but wondered if we would find more, in other locations we were going to check.

We finished our day by checking Elms on the English side of the R. Tweed, near the Union Bridge, or Chain Bridge as it is often called, but found nothing.

With a heavy frost overnight, every Elm twig was covered in ice until nearly midday on Monday, so our Elm checking day on the north side of the R. Tweed from the Union Bridge to Finchy Shiel, was limited to approx. three hours before the “egging light” was going and we found no eggs on the many checkable Elms.

On Tuesday, we woke to a carpet of snow and it carried on snowing until 11am, so due to every branch holding a layer of snow, we opted to do a walk in the Paxton area, just to find more Elms. In the evening we phoned Liz to tell her of our egg finds and she sounded really thrilled to hear our news!

We also phoned Iain to see if he could meet us near Coldstream in the morning, as we were having to head for home and would be going that way. He said he would definitely be able to meet us at Lennel, along with Barry Prater, at 10-30am, so that was perfect.

Wednesday morning was lovely and sunny and we met up on time, to walk down the track to the Elms bearing the eggs and after more photos were taken by Iain and grid refs checked, we all headed across the river bridge to re-find the branch and the untagged egg, on the Northumberland side of the R. Tweed.

The branch was found with no trouble but it took a few minutes to re-find the egg and then we tagged it with a piece of string. Iain and Barry were thrilled to see the eggs and were very knowledgable and enthusiastic company to be with. Iain kindly said that he would contact Michael Perkins, the Northumberland Butterfly Recorder, to give him the news, as we didn’t have his contact details.

Meeting up with Iain to witness our egg finds completed what was a very memorable time in the Scottish Borders, even if we had no more finds after our first day but given better weather, maybe we could have found more Scottish gems. But we will be back, as we don’t give up easily! And just maybe, south west Scotland will reveal its White-letter gems in the near future!!

I would finally like to thank Liz & Andrew for all of their help and encouragement over the years. To quote Sir Isaac Newton: "If we have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants".

- Ken Haydock