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1 Sep 2009

Butterflies

The first time we saw the house in Normandy that we went on to buy was in July 1990. After looking at the building, including the huge crack in the gable end from the ridge to the ground, we were taken through the fields that came with it. As we walked through the long grass we were surrounded by butterflies of many species. That was probably one of the underlying reasons we decided this was the right house to buy – it felt like a successful environment.

Over the years, we have seen many variations in the frequency and variety of butterfly species, but this year has had two successes and one failure. The failure has been the normally common small tortoiseshell (Nymphalis urticae), which this year has been very rare, none until late August, and then only one or two at a time. It appears that this species has been having a hard time generally, with bad weather affecting caterpillars and pupae.

A success has been the painted lady (vanessa cardui), which has been around in profusion for most of the summer: at one time there were over a hundred in a 10sq metre patch of long grass and knapweed in our garden. This is a migratory species, and appears in the north, as in Normandy and southern England, depending on the weather and other conditions further south.

This is usually rare in England, but there has also been a large influx this summer there too. The only time I have seen more than the odd one or two in England was about 15 or more years ago, at Thomas Hardy’s house in Dorset. The garden was full of them, and after a little shower, dozens of them landed on my blue plastic anorak (it fitted in a pocket, not something I would otherwise wear, honest)).

The other success was the clouded yellow (Colias crocea), which I have rarely seen anywhere. This year there were several in the garden at any one time throughout June until the end of August. In flight and at a distance they could be mistaken for brimstones, but are less lemon coloured than the male brimstone, but more yellow than the female. Up close, they have black spots on the outer wings, and a dark border around the inner wings, although they keep their wings closed when landed.

Most of the other commoner species have been around – gatekeeper, meadow brown, wall brown, marbled white, fritillary, red admiral, peacock and the common whites, but some, like the speckled wood, have been less frequent than usual. I have as usual seen the odd small blue, flickering through the undergrowth like a flake of the sky, and a couple of white admirals.

On balance, then, not a bad year. We have planted the usual butterfly attracting plants in the garden, and kept an area of about 15 sqm uncut, so that the meadow grasses and plants have grown quite tall. This area is now attracting goldfinches as well as butterflies.

The main paths from the lane are bordered by lavender, mint, lemon balm, oregano, marjoram and wild geranium. Throughout the summer walking along the narrow paths sends up hordes of bees, butterflies, moths – including the wonderful humming bird hawk moth – and the constant buzzing carries across the garden.

It was the Rev Sydney Smith (1771-1845) who once said that heaven is ‘eating foie gras to the sound of trumpets’, but for me a glass of cold Sancerre, a plate of charcuterie, and late summer sun, accompanied by the buzzing and flashing colours of hundreds of benevolent insects is as good as it gets.

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