Wednesday 18 July 2012

Purple Emperor at Bernwood Forest Oxfordshire 16 July 2012

His Imperial Majesty comes to Earth

Years ago I recall reading a book Ramblings of a Sportsman-Naturalist by D.J.Watkins-Pitchford who wrote under the pseudonym BB. He was an all round naturalist and one of the chapters was devoted entirely to recounting how he studied and followed the lives of Purple Emperor butterflies in a Northamptonshire wood near to his home. This stimulated a youthful desire within me to see this wonderful but elusive butterfly but I only managed to satisfy the desire a year ago in Bernwood Forest. 

                                                     My first ever Purple Emperor 

In this most dreadful of summers the weather finally relented if only briefly and the forecast was good. So seizing the opportunity I headed once again for Bernwood Forest to try and find a Purple Emperor. This butterfly is probably the most desired of all the species that grace our land. No other butterfly has stimulated its admirers to think up such names as 'His Imperial Majesty' or the splendid 'Sultan of Morocco'. What makes it so charismatic and creates such interest? Try these for a start; its sheer magnificence as the sun catches the purple-blue iridescence on the wings, its disdain for humanity, totally ignoring anyone or anything as it feeds and allowing approach to within inches, its enigmatic and unpredictable appearances and a powered flight that is a wonder to behold. Sheer arrogant royalty in the air and yet when it descends to earth demonstrating the most disgusting feeding habits, preferring animal faeces or decomposing animal remains from which it extracts the minerals it needs to survive. Most people who go looking for this butterfly these days know this and it is not unusual to see grown men furtively and longingly looking at piles of dog poo along the track through the forest that is so heavily used and abused by dog walkers. So it was that this morning I made my way along the selfsame track, in intermittent sunny spells and eventually found myself in one such sunny spell with several other enthusiasts looking at a male Emperor feeding by the side of the track. True to form it allowed approach to within inches, so much so that it was difficult to get a photo of it as everyone else was also attempting to get as close as possible trying for the ultimate photo. My fellow admirers included people from far beyond Oxfordshire. One person had even driven especially from Wales. 

The iridescence does not show unless you view it from a certain angle and then usually only on one wing but sometimes luck plays a part and the full glory of purple-blue on both wings can be seen to good effect. We admired the Emperor for a good twenty minutes before it rose majestically and swooped around at least five times, as if looking to land on one of us but then in an instant shot off with powerful wing beats away and up into a sallow never to be seen again. We wandered to and fro along the track but there were to be no more royal appearances. Silver Washed Fritillaries and a couple of early Purple Hairstreaks added some gloss to the morning but it was all over. So another encounter with this most beautiful and enigmatic of insects touched my life and made it all the richer for the experience. I can certainly relate to it's preference for sunning itself in the treetops, gently swaying on a leaf in the breeze high above the humdrum goings on at ground level. How appealing. Maybe in another life?


  1. In fact BB was an old stytle wildfowler and shooting man, he was a keen Carp fisherman. The son of a vicar he was a marvellous artist and professionally taught art at Rugby School but above all he was an incredibily observant naturalist a fascinating character who tragically lost both his wife Cicely and son Robin when they were young and I think his daughter Angela never married, his latter years were spent visiting the John Radcliffe with I think kidney problems. He devoted a great deal of his life protecting and collecting the eggs of the Purple Emperor at a time that it looked to be in danger of becoming extinct in the midlands. He used to write a regular article in the Shooting Times, a magazine I took virtually because of his wonderful scribblings an amazing talent and as I jot this down on my computer under a limited edition wood cut print by the truly great man of a winter fox hunting alongside a river in a snowstorm. I have something like half dozen of his books written in a style from a life now long gone. His writing entertained and taught me so much about the countryside, I was in awe of the man.

  2. I certainly enjoyed BB's books as a youngster. Back as a boy I was developing an embryonic interest in nature to which his books certainly appealed.