Sunday 3 September 2017

A Royal Appointment in Sussex 2nd September 2017

We walked slowly down the steep metalled lane to Halcombe Farm until it levelled out to pass the farmhouse and its cultivated gardens full of dahlias, their huge spiky or globular heads of primary colours held atop feet high stalks of green and bringing the exotic vibrancy of their native Mexico to the fading dull greens of a late summer's day in a secluded valley in Sussex.

Passing through the farmyard and getting to the end of a large barn we came to a steep slope on our left forming the eastern side of  the gently descending valley. This was where a male Queen of Spain Fritillary had made his kingdom after crossing The Channel from, possibly the coastal dunes of northern France, where they breed. It was not the most attractive place to establish his realm and receive homage from today's admirers, being a small area of hard, sun baked, bare chalky patches of earth amongst a wider covering of scant grass and miscellaneous plants but this is what this butterfly prefers.

It was not hard to find him as, on turning the corner of the barn, a semi circle of acolytes were crouched or lying prone half way up the bank, pointing cameras to within inches of his perched presence on a patch of bare ground.

His wings were tightly closed, showing the lovely marbled patterning of metallic, silvery white patches on the undersides of the hindwings and he remained unmoved for a minute or so before two excited children got too close and he took exception and flew, but not very far. We followed, to find him on another area of bare ground, now showing  ginger wings, spotted black, held wide open in the sun. His splayed form was at first, hard to see, as he was such a small presence in such a large area but once located the outspread ginger wings were obvious on the chalky grey earth.

Note the squared, blunt hind edges to the lower wings
As with all fritillaries it had an undefined presence and beauty of form that brings a thrill on first encountering it The uppersides of the wings are the usual fritillary combination of ginger brown with black spots and streaks but it is the beautifully patterned undersides that catch the eye with geometric panels of metallic silver liberally spread across its hindwings, bolder than on any other fritillary.

According to Neil Hume, Chairman of Sussex Butterfly Conservation, a noted butterfly expert and the person who had discovered their last recorded presence in Britain, near Chichester in Sussex, back in 2009 but never since, this was the male's lekking ground. I felt a pang of sympathy for this very rare butterfly that was simply following its genetic programming but knowing, unlike it, that it was never going to encounter a female and complete its role in the procreation of next year's generation. It will be a lonely, unconsummated and brief reign in its unprepossessing kingdom before it succumbs to the shortening days and maybe, if it lasts that long, the first frosts of autumn.

He flew again, gliding in a low semi circle higher up the slope, the erratic flight powered by rapid flicks of his wings before he once more settled on another carefully selected patch of bare ground, that was a motley bed of grass blades, spent leaves, stems and pebbles.The sun temporarily behind a cloud meant that he remained with his wings open to gain as much warmth as possible. 

We stood, as before, in an adoring circle around him in the hope he would close his wings, as it is the underside patterning that is the most desired image for the camera lens. Twenty minutes passed and slowly, almost imperceptibly, he began to raise his wings from their horizontal position and after a minute they were almost vertical and closed. In another minute they definitely were and we all crouched or lay on the ground to get that ultimate image.

Slowly he slid his closed upper wings under the lower wings so making himself as small and as inconspicuous as possible. Neil said he was going to sleep and now the marbled underwing patterning showed its true benefit as it made him almost invisible on his chosen background of grey earth, plant rosettes, bits of straw, twig and stones. So hard was he to discern, that many of us if we looked away found it hard to detect him on looking back, and required a fellow enthusiast to point him out.

The Queen of Spain Fritillary in its favoured habitat. Can you see it?
The sun made a welcome return and the butterfly awoke and flew, this time to settle undetected and with this cue we left him to his solitary reign, reflecting on the miracle of how a mushy pulp enclosed in a hard chrysallis case can emerge as a creation of such delicate grace and intricate beauty.

The Queen of Spain Fritillary is not uncommon in mainland Europe and North Africa and it is not, as its name would suggest, particularly associated with Spain. It breeds in scattered resident populations across northern France, Belgium, The Netherlands and thence southwards, with migrants spreading out each Spring and there is surprisingly, also a resident population in southern Scandinavia. Its food plant is Field Pansy and Wild Pansy and in southern Europe, violets.  It shows a preference for hot and arid localities where it can bask on the warm bare ground.

When it is found in Britain it is usually encountered in the southern coastal counties although several individuals have been recorded from Spurn Head in Lincolnshire in 1945 and Minsmere in Suffolk in 1995 and for the subsequent two years thereafter but then they died out and were never recorded again.  It is a very rare butterfly in Britain, either as an immigrant or as offspring of earlier immigrants in the same year, with most sightings being made in September and early October. Over the last three centuries it has been reported less than 400  times in Britain.

In Sussex it was last recorded in 2009 after it was found in September 2008 at Brandy Hole Copse near Chichester, followed by another at the same location in July 2009, and subsequent sightings of up to seven individuals by a crop of maize in September 2009. Finally, a mating pair were watched in October that same year but no offspring from this mating appeared in 2010 and it has not been seen again in Sussex or indeed Britain until this year.

There is evidence that its occurrence in Britain might have increased since 1990 but there is no indication that a permanent population has ever become established and it remains one of Britain's rarest butterflies.


Such an event was worthy cause for celebration so a visit to the wonderful Litlington Tea Rooms seemed appropriate and where a sumptuous Cream Tea for two was just the thing!

Clackers-my butterfly buddy!

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