​Zen and the Art of Seeking Out The UK’s Butterfly Species – Part 1

According to what you can easily find on Google, “Zen” is described as a state of calm attentiveness in which one’s actions are guided by intuition rather than by conscious effort. You could surely describe the best motorcycling experiences in this way, a state that I’ve found is certainly attainable by riding stunning roads such as the Route des Grands Alpes in the French Alps, or the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland for example.  In a play on words with the well-known book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, we would keep the “motorcycle” but replace the “maintenance aspect” with seeking butterflies (in itself, an activity that approached “Zen” as we got more and more into it). But how did this come about?

Well, back in October 2019, whilst enjoying some drinks one evening with my childhood friend Simon Russell (known to friends as Fuzzy or Fuzz), a plan was hatched to seek out the species of UK butterflies that we hadn’t seen, would like to see again, or weren’t sure that we’d seen.

It sounded like a great project for us, so we chinked glasses in celebration of our new aim. For myself, I vowed to do it all by motorcycle, and Fuzz, being a motorcyclist himself, would also travel by two wheels on most occasions.The project was on.

We came up with our butterfly “hit list” and researched places to find them, along with their flight times. Ideally,we thought it good if “the project”could be done in a single year as Patrick Barkham had described doing in his book The Butterfly Isles(though without the motorcycle), but this was unlikely due to our various commitments of work, family and other stuff that we each had going on. A certain pandemic (that wasn’t really a topic in 2019) would exacerbate these constraints, so it would be done over three summers (and is still in progress at the time of writing).

Our travels would take us near, far and wide in search of the species on our “hit list” – from Battlesbury Hill near Warminster in Wiltshire close to where I live, to further flung areas such as Hickling Broad in Norfolk for the Swallowtail, Aish Tor on the southern fringes of Dartmoor for High Brown Fritillary, the Knepp Wildlands in Sussex for His Imperial Majesty, the Purple Emperor, Compton Bay on the Isle of Wight for the Glanville Fritillary, Branscombe in Devon for the Wood White, Green Down in Somerset for the Large Blue, and to an area well-known to many Butterfly Conservation (Cumbria) members, the Smardale Gill National Nature Reserve near Kirkby Stephen.

Space doesn’t allow for each story of our trips to be told, so I’ve selected three that I hope will be of interest and enjoyment, including our visit “up North” to Smardale Gill. In “Part Two” to be published in the Autumn, I hope to describe our return to Cumbria in search of the Mountain Ringlet, the Large Heath and the Northern Brown Argus, all of which are on our “hit list” for 2022.

The Highly Endangered High Brown Fritillary – The Last Day of May 2020

The plight of the High Brown Fritillary in the UK is depressing, the species having suffered a catastrophic decline in distribution, arguably making it our most threatened butterfly. We therefore had to see it whilst it was still possible to do so.

I knew that they were found on a few sites in the Southern valleys of Dartmoor, so I kept a regular eye on the Devon Butterflies social media feed, learning that some High Browns had emerged (very) early. Aish Tor seemed like the place to go according to the blog, but Fuzz had also suggested Hembury Wood (from a book that he had).

I looked forward to this day. It was a relatively early start; I was on the road at precisely 7.48am, having cooked breakfast and checkedmy moth trap before I went. It was bliss to be hitting the road (after hardly having gone anywhere since the beginning of “lockdown one” in late March) with the sun behind me on an eerily quiet A303. As always, I enjoyed the climb up into the Blackdown Hills, and would be at Fuzz’s place at Payhembury (near Honiton)for socially distanced tea, coffee and catch up in his garden before setting off for Dartmoor.

We took the route from Payhembury to Cullompton and jumped onto the M5 heading SouthWest, which becomes the A38 after Exeter.

It was an uneventful cruise to Ashburton, where we would turn off and head into the valleys of Dartmoor’s lower reaches. On the climb up the hill out of Newbridge, close to our destination, a large fritillary flew alongside the road. It was probably a High Brown, though it could have been a Dark Green. We both noticed it.

My “dress rehearsal” for this type of trip had worked well, with enough room in the bike’spanniers to store everything securely that we weren’t carrying, with my helmet and Fuzz’s leather jacket chained to my rear wheel with a padlock.

We didn’t know which way to go, so we walked “up and around” the Tor, catchingbrilliant views of the Dart Valley below. We spotted a few Small Heaths and a Green Hairstreak, but no sign of any fritillaries. We suspected we were too high up, and that the best place was further downhill; we spoke to others who appeared to think the same.

We headed purposely downhill, and after crossing what seemed like an invisible line, it was spectacular. We met a butterfly enthusiast (and former motorcycle circuit racer) who had a lot of knowledge of the site; he’d just seen 30 or 40 specimens. Soon, we would see the same. Also, there were decent amounts of Small Pearl Bordered Fritillaries still on the wing, a species I’d not seen since I was 10 years old in a glade in Longleat Woods, near where the Center Parcs holiday park is now located. Fuzz was also with me then. There’s none there anymore.

Despite the fabulous number of sightings, we decided to up-sticks and try Hembury Wood in the afternoon a few miles away, but it was very different. We hardly saw any butterflies at all. Maybe we went to the wrong areas, but we didn’t give up on it easily, covering quite a bit of ground. I think the most promising area we found was anopen area with a West facing aspect, but even there we saw virtually nothing. Things must have changed at Hembury Wood.It was a magical day nonetheless, and an ambition fulfilled.

Undercliff Search For The Wood White – Late April 2021

Until most recently, Fuzz tended to use books to find information about butterfly sites, but I got him more into using the immediacy of blogs and social media profiles run by the Butterfly Conservation local groups in order to find out where the sightings are occurring in real-time.

Our previous year’s visit to Aish Tor and Hembury Wood was a good example of this; bloggers had posted news of High Brown Fritillary emergences at Aish Tor, whilst Hembury Wood was listed as a High Brown Fritillary site in a book. We saw plenty at Aish Tor, but couldn’t find any at Hembury later the same day. The world had moved on, but the book hadn’t.

On the same train of thought, I’d seen a post by someone reporting a first sighting of a Wood White on the undercliff at Axmouth, on the South Devon coast.These fascinating areas between Axmouth and Lyme Regis, and between Beer, Branscombe and Sidmouth are a known stronghold for this species.On the face of it, exposed coastal cliffs seem like improbable locations to search for such a delicate, frail looking butterfly, but something about this habitat clearly works for them.

It was late April, the release from lockdown had been recently granted, and the weather was favourable, so we decided to go for a look. I set off early, deciding to go via the Somerset Levels for a change, but found the traffic was quite busy (it was a Friday), and it took longer than I thought it would.

I ended up resorting to a stint on the M5 (not something I wanted to do), but it ate up the miles and I got to Fuzz’s at around 9.20 (rather than my planned 9.00). A pot of tea in the garden was most welcome after my mad dash.

We’d both done a bit of research on the area at Axmouthwe needed to visit, planning our time to search the accessible parts of the Undercliff National Nature Reserve. Though it ultimately proved unsuccessful in terms of the Wood White, we sighted various Spring species such as Orange Tip, Dingy Skipper, Green Hairstreak and even a Clouded Yellow.

As the good weather continued to hold, we took the opportunity to try again a couple of days later. This time we visited Branscombe, and sighted our first specimen within ten minutes of commencing our search, on the cliffside behind some beach huts on the Western side of the beach. I punched the air.

However, this side of the beach looked less promising overall (and certainly less accessible), so we decided to concentrate our efforts above the Eastern side of the beach in the coastal scrub and woods that forms the undercliff (which is part of the South West Coast path, as it is at Axmouth).

We searched for a while, and whilst squeezing past a group of hikers (strangely awkward in Covid times, as there wasn’t enough space to socially distance), a Wood White fluttered by. We immediately realised what we’d seen, so we decided to stay in the area and see if it would return.

It did, and we watched it patrol a small section of the coast path, sometimes pausing to nectar on a specific Vetch flower.The Wood White is described as being constantly active in suitable weather, so to capture images of it nectaring were unexpected, and we also witnessed a “near mating” when a potential suitor arrived on the scene. We watched them face each other and touch antennae, but they decided not to take the encounter any further.

Whilst we watched and photographed the action, spending nearly two hours, we were passed by various walkers, none of whom noticed what they were brushing past, andon one occasion, an oblivious walker almost stood on the nectaring insect as we crouched next to it. Nor did anyone enquire as to what we were looking at with our cameras in hand.We decided that it was metaphor for what is wrong with everything in the world; a national rarity unnoticed and ignored, and therefore not cared about. And these are people were enthusiasts of the outdoors and probably “into” nature.

Still They Rise Up In The Sun, Andin Celebration We Raised A Glass; The Scotch Argus And A Cumbrian Pub Stay– August 2021

I’d never really thought much about the Scotch Argus, a seemingly remote and unknown species to me, but as we approached the flight season, I suggested to Fuzz that we seize the moment and head up North to search for it. We could either visit the iconic butterfly site of Arnside Knott near the coast just South of the Lake District,or try the Smardale Gill National Nature Reserve near Kirkby Stephen further inland. After some online research, I preferred the idea of Smardale Gill, primarily due to the historic “numbers” in the reported sightings. Someone counted 447 specimens a few days before our visit, for example.

The pandemic had resulted in very few people travelling abroad (even when it became possible to do so), with most choosing UK staycations instead. Despite many places being fully booked, I found a perfect base for our Scotch Argus search in the lovely village of Dent; a real ale and food-serving pub called the George and Dragon (about 20 miles from Smardale Gill). We booked three nights.

For the ride up, I decided to set off the evening before, taking in some areas to the West of the Cotswolds (Stroud, Tewkesbury and Pershore) before stopping overnightbeside the M6 on the edge of Birmingham at Walsall. This gave me the option of having a decent ride up through the Peak District and Pennines the following day, whilst still allowing time for an afternoon “reconnaissance” visit to Smardale Gill weather permitting.

My route from Birmingham took me via Cannock Chase, then Rugely, Uttoxeter, Cheadle, Buxton, Sparrowpit, the spectacular Winnats Pass, then Castleton and up across the moorland landscape near the fabulously named Wigtwizzle, then through Huddersfield, Halifax and Keighley to Skipton where I stopped for a break. Fuelled by cake and caffeine, I pushed towards Dent where the milestone of precisely 30,000 miles was reached on my BMW R1200 GS Adventureas I pulled up at the George and Dragon pub; it was a nice moment.

The weather forecast fluctuated wildly on the lead-up to our visit, and though the outlook was not perfect, I was confident we’d get our sightings. As I progressed North through the Peak District and Pennines, the weather was warm and still, so Fuzz (who’d driven up)agreed to meet me at the reserve and spend an hour or so. Anything we saw then would be a bonus.

I checked in, took my bags to our room and rode on to Smardale Gill to meet Fuzz.It was a nice ride, through Dentdale to Sedbergh, then continuing amidgreat scenery and good biking roads to Kirkby Stephen,and through the back lanesto the reserve. We saw our first Scotch Argus specimens and retreated happily back to the George and Dragon, hungry for food and thirsting for a couple of beers.

Next morning, we made our commute to the reserve, Fuzz having brought his biking gear so that he could ride pillion with me. It was very windy, and worse than the forecast had suggested, but we had a good day nonetheless, seeing many Scotch Argus specimens as well as fresh Painted Ladies, Small Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals and Peacocks in some of the more sheltered spots.

That evening, we deliberated over our options at the George and Dragon, considering a visit to Arnside Knott the following day rather than Smardale Gill, but in the end we went for Smardale again. This time, the weather was better than the forecast. We revisited some areas of the reserve that were productive from the first full day, as well as some new areas that we didn’t check the previous day, such as the abandoned kilns and quarry alongside the old railway track. We were also hoping for a very late Northern Brown Argus (another species on our list), but it wasn’t to be, though we did find a singleton Common Blue that had been battered by the wind and rain to the point of being almost unrecognisable.

Before we left the reserve, we visited the bird hide and saw several Tree Sparrowsfeeding on the peanuts put out by the wardens (a scarce species, and a first for Fuzz), and just before we walked out, a pristine Red Squirrel capped off a great weekend of wildlife.

This time we didn’t ride straight back to the George and Dragon, as we had a table booked for dinner at the “famous” Tan Hill Inn, the UK’s highest altitude pub, and perhaps the only one that possesses a snow plough. We enjoyed our pub grub, and headed back to Dent across the moors, scattering Grouse, avoiding unpredictable sheep and taking great care on gripless road surfaces and cattle grids as a band of rain moved in.

In Peter Eeles recent landmark book “Lifecycles of British & Irish Butterflies”, he describes the Scotch Argus’ habits as “retreating among grasses as soon as clouds appear, only to reappear again when the sun comes out …it is fascinating to watch an apparently dormant landscape come alive with butterflies as the clouds move away.”This was what we witnessed, on those three magical daysin the fickle weather of Eastern Cumbria; still they rise up in the warmth of the sun. And in celebration, we raised a glass and had a drink in the George and Dragon.

On the Sunday, it was time for the long ride home to Wiltshire. I decided to make a day of it, stopping at Settle to hatch a route plan over a pot of tea. My ride for the day (in mixed conditions) took me through Colne, Trawden, Hebden Bridge, Ripponden, Denshaw, Delph, Holmfirth, Glossop, Buxton, Leek, Stoke-on-Trent, then across to the West, skirting south of Shrewsbury, then Church Stretton, Craven Arms, Hereford, Monmouth, the Wye Valley, across the Severn on the M48, then along the M4 to Bath and home. I was very much in the zone, no mistakes, the riding feeling very intuitive, very “Zen” in fact.It was a great weekend all round.

Thanks to Butterfly Conservation (Cumbria) Chairman Chris Winnick for inviting me to contribute this feature. Look out for “Part Two” in the Autumn edition, where I hope to describe finding the Mountain Ringlet, Large Heath and Northern Brown Argus.

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