With our youngest child at university, Mike, my husband, being semi retired, and the need for a ‘cheaper’ holiday after exploring the Pantanal in Brazil the previous year, we planned a ‘butterfly year’.
I had met Patrick Barkham and had been enthused. I thought we could see all the 59 British Butterflies in a calendar year. Mike would only agree if I planned the route as he knew I would be disappointed if we did not see them all, and blame him! So I had to do some really serious planning in the winter evenings. I certainly learnt a lot about flight periods and best sites to visit. I booked three weeks off work and kept all spring and summer weekends free for butterfly spotting.
In April we started by visiting Tywell Hills and Dales and it took three visits before we saw our first Grizzled and Dingy Skippers. We had a successful visit to Bison Hill to see the Duke of Burgundy and a ridiculous number of Green Hairstreaks. At that point we should have gone home, but we thought we would look for Small Blues at Tottenhoe Knolls Nature Reserve, they were not yet out and on returning to the car we found our rear window smashed.
Not much was taken, it was more frustrating as the following day was a really sunny Sunday and we were without transport, but in the end we took lots of photographs of Orange Tips and Holly Blues in our garden. Part of our butterfly challenge was that we had to get good pictures of both the male and female of each species.
The season was really late and I became concerned that I had booked the wrong holiday dates as species seemed a couple of weeks later than normal. But after a poor start, things got better. Normally we just manage to see a couple of Green Hairstreaks at Barnack Hills and Holes NNR but this year we saw many, probably as we had never been out ‘butterflying’ every weekend in May, June and July before.
It was still cool for camping when we set off for Surrey. We tried to visit new sites, walk over 10,000 steps and visit a few tea shops everywhere. In Surrey we had our first successful visit to Denbies Hillside and Oaken Wood to tick off Adonis Blue and Wood White respectively. Then we had our first visit to the famous Bentley Wood, but we needed two visits to spot the Pearl Bordered Fritillary.
The Glanville Fritillary was one of 5 species that we had never seen before and I was a bit apprehensive that I may have planned to visit the Isle of Wight too early, but we must have seen 60 or 70 on the wing. Now in the middle of May we still had not seen a Red Admiral, but on a visit to Durlslton Country Park we saw one and a Wall Brown.
Now the weather seemed to be really picking up and species seemed to be on the wing when they should be. We had a trip to Norfolk to see my favourite Swallowtail butterfly at Strumpshaw RSPB reserve, but wanting to visit a new site we also went to the Ted Ellis reserve.
Early June was the time we needed to go North. Being originally from Durham I was familiar with Bishop Middleham Quarry. We picked up the Northern Brown Argus and then visited a site near Durham where the Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary has been successfully re-introduced.
I noticed there was a BBCS walk to see the Mountain Ringlet at Irton Fell. Originally we had planned to see this in Scotland, but we were flexible and, as various people who we had met had told us that this would be the most difficult, we booked up. Even though it was a cloudy day and the Mountain Ringlets were not flying we saw 6 and had another good day.
By this point we were getting quite confident that we would see all the species. It was cloudy again while driving to Glasdrum Woods, but when we got there it was sunny and we easily picked up our targets. We were amazed at the number of Chequered Skippers, Marsh and Small Pearl Bordered Fritillaries about, they seemed to be everywhere near our overnight stop at my cousin’s croft near Oban.
Next it was off to Northern Ireland to pick up the Cryptic Wood White. We saw it at Cairnvangan Lakes within 45 minutes of docking at Belfast! I had planned for 3 days, allowing for inclement weather.
Back home it was Black Hairsteak time, and this is an easy butterfly for us living near Brampton Wood, Monks Wood NNR and Glapthorn Cow Pastures. We had never seen so many Black Hairstreaks, the recorder counted over 175 at Glapthorn. At Brampton Wood at lunchtime White Admiral and Silver Washed Fritillary were amongst those seen.
The mid June weekend proved to have quite a lot of driving. We could not decide whether to go to Blean Woods or Hockley Wood for the Heath Fritillary, but decided Essex was slightly closer and could perhaps see White Letter Hairsteak at Hadleigh Country Park. Both species were seen in good numbers. Next day we had a trip to Daneway Banks to see the Large Blue. A couple of years ago we went to Somerset but now there are more sites for them.
The following weekend was our purple butterfly day, a trip to Fermyn Woods, although a little early in the season, 23rd June, we managed to see Purple Emperor and Purple Hairstreak. With regular checking we had not missed anything. I realised that now, with the warm spell, time was running out to see the Large Heath, unless we wanted to make another trip to Scotland, so on our way to Devon to see the High Brown Fritillary we made a long detour to Fenns and Wixall NNR to see it. I was confident about the Large Heath as it was a butterfly I thought was relatively easy as I recall seeing it on family Scottish holidays. We quickly managed to spot 3 Large Heath flying but this butterfly was to become the only species we failed to photograph, despite another attempt in Wales. The flight period seemed to finish early.
The summer seemed to be getting hotter and our week camping in Devon and Dorset when over 30 degrees was like being in the south of France. We had never seen a High Brown Fritillary and it was another butterfly I thought may be difficult but we had one of our best days in the Heddon Valley having excellent views of High Browns, Dark Green and Silver Washed Fritillaries, plus our one and only Grayling sighting.
Our first evening at Lulworth Cove was slightly overcast, but, on sitting down for a cup of tea we soon realised that everywhere we looked Lulworth Skippers were resting. In Dorset we saw a ridiculous number of Marbled Whites, every patch of purple knapweed and thistle seemed to host several butterflies on our coastal Durdle Door to Lulworth walk. We gave up counting them after reaching 600!
In early July, with only a few butterflies left, we ticked off Silver Studded Blue with a visit, to a new place to us, Buxton Heath, north of Norwich, and returned to a favourite reserve to see Silver Spotted Skipper at Aston Rowant NNR.
With only the late emerging Brown Hairsteak and Scotch Argus left we had another trip north to see the Scotch Argus at Smardale Gill NNR. We met up with our new friend, Tegan, the only other person we had met trying to see all the British Butterflies in 2018, after working in the Antarctic and also having read Patrick Barkham’s book she had decided she wanted to see some colourful butterflies after 18months of whiteness!
We were quite optimistic that we would see Scotch Argus as the weather forecast was good again and there had been favourable reports. The day began well with a few early sightings and reasonable photographs but the numbers just grew and grew. By mid afternoon we had counted over 2000 Scotch Argus and one area near the viaduct we sat having tea surrounded by literally hundreds of them on the thistles.
Our final butterfly, the Brown Hairstreak, was one with which we were not familiar, it took several attempts at looking in tall trees in Whitecross Green, Otmore RSPB reserve and Grafton Wood. They were worth looking for.
Having a ‘butterfly year’ is to be recommended. It did involve driving almost the length and breadth of Britain but we explored, and enjoyed, many new sites. Admittedly we were very fortunate with the weather which was excellent for butterflies, and camping.
With careful planning we managed to see all our target butterflies. Not least we enjoyed meeting other enthusiasts and explaining to some what we were attempting, hopefully fostering their interest. Plus we have promised ourselves that we must join some British Butterfly conservation work parties as it was so noticeable how many butterflies we saw at the well managed BBCS sites!
We will certainly remember 2018 as our ‘butterfly year’.
Catherine Weightman - 2018