Monday 22 August 2022

Double Scotch 18th August 2022

At about this time, three years ago, I made a trip with my butterflying pal Peter to Smardale Gill in Cumbria with the intention of viewing for the first time ever a butterfly that only lives in the northern parts of Britain, the Scotch Argus. We succeeded and spent a pleasant afternoon in wonderful scenery watching and photographing a profusion of Scotch Argus butterflies.

Whither the name Scotch Argus? In Britain this butterfly is mainly found in Scotland in upland grasslands with only two outposts in England, both in the Lake District. Argus comes from the fact its upperwings are decorated with white spots and it was derived from the Greek mythological giant Argos that possessed a hundred eyes.

Smardale Gill is a nature reserve managed by Cumbria Wildlife Trust and comprises an all weather track, that was formerly a railway, atop a steep embankment that runs for 3.5miles to a spectacular viaduct that crosses the Smardale Beck far below. Being high in the Cumbrian Fells the scenery is, as one would expect, spectacularly beautiful.

Today I was on my way to Glasgow to visit my daughter and had deliberately planned an early start from my home in Oxfordshire in order to have time to visit the reserve that lies some twenty miles east of the M6 Motorway. After the mind numbing tedium of driving north for several hours through industrial England it was a pleasure to find myself on the sweeping curves of the motorway as it wound its way down through the hills towards Tebay in the Cumbrian Fells. Shortly before Tebay I left the motorway to head east on much quieter rural roads and to eventually find myself at Smardale, a tiny village of less than fifty souls hidden away in the folds of the fells.

Having been here before I knew where to go and leaving the car in the Trust's discrete car park. walked through two gates and soon was following the former railway track. At first it passes through woodland for about a mile but then opens out onto banks of blue moor grass and the many colourful heads of knapweed and scabious that flower at the edge of the track.This is the home of the Scotch Argus, one of the only two locations in England where it can now be found.

But not today apparently. The weather was totally unsuitable for butterflying, being cloudy and with a wind that was by no means warm. Scotch Argus are a sun loving butterfly and in conditions such as these would be inactive, snuggled down in the sheltering grass and low vegetation and such is their camouflaged colouring when their wings are closed, would be invisible to my human eye.

Stoic to the last I resigned myself to nothing more than a nice walk which would provide a  pleasant break from my long journey north. Reaching about half way along the track I found myself in an open but sheltered area with a steep grass bank rising up to my left and an equally steep wooded drop to my right. A butterfly propelled by the wind flew past me. A frisson of excitement came and went. It was brown but too pale. It was a Meadow Brown. 

Looking at the grass growing at my feet by the track I decided on another strategy. I would slowly walk through the grass in one last hope of disturbing a  hidden Scotch Argus.You never know it might just succeed. It was a very long shot but to my immense satisfaction, in a very short space of time it worked. From my feet, hesitantly arose a butterfly that looked almost black but was in fact dark chocolate brown.  I willed it to stop its jinking flight and settle but it flew higher up the bank to my left where due to the steep contour I was unable to follow.

Scotch Argus upperwings are dark brown almost black when freshly emerged with an orange strip on each wing in which are white eye spots encompassed by black.The underwing is more muted with a distinct grey band across the lower wing and two small eyespots on the upperwing, often invisible when the butterfly is at rest. Their flight season is short, lasting only from the end of July to the end of August and most begin to look tired and worn well before the end of the month, as they spend so much time low in grass and vegetation. Any I saw today were likely to be showing distinct signs of wear.

I walked a few more steps and disturbed another which was more co-operative and after a heart stopping thirty seconds of hesitant fluttering, as it searched for somewhere suitable to put down, finally settled on a low growing leaf at ground level. Here was my chance and moving closer I took some photos but was disappointed to find it was a rather faded individual. Nonetheless it was a Scotch Argus so there were no complaints from me.

Although the weather was not propitious and I was having to work hard to locate any Scotch Argus when I did find one the weather worked in my favour as the butterflies were sluggish and disinclined  to fly far, flopping and jinking around for a brief moment but obviously desirous to resume their slumber as soon as possible.

Today any butterfly I disturbed quickly dropped back in the grass or in a couple of cases settled on a leaf, there to 'pancake' with wings spread wide to absorb any warmth. Most however slid upperwings into lower and became virtually invisible triangles of grey brown clinging to grass stems

Look away and so well camouflaged were they it was hard to re-locate them.

A Raven croaked once, twice, thrice from high in the sky beyond the trees, its disembodied voice coming ever more distantly from across the fells. 

I walked further to more clusters of scabious and knapweed. Another Scotch Argus rose from my feet and then two more. I must have seen around ten, so very different to last time when there were hundreds flying energetically on both sides of the track, at this very same spot. Finally a relatively unworn individual co-operated and perched openly, allowing me to get images of it both with its wings open and closed. I left it clinging like a minute pennant of grey and brown to a grass stem, asleep and awaiting another warmer, sunnier day to complete its short life.

I had to go. Two hours had passed in no time. A mile walk back and I reached the car as it began to rain.

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