Wednesday 26 June 2024

Bernwood Butterflies 24th June 2024

On a day of summer heat I turned off a country road that runs from Stanton St John to Oakley and into a tiny car park, no more than a square really with room for three cars at the most, its entrance an unheralded gap in the high hedges that border the road.This is one of the many magnificent small reserves managed by BBOWT.(Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust) This particular one being Bernwood Meadows that abuts Bernwood Forest, beloved of dog walkers, half a mile further up the road and where most people gravitate to leave their car in the main car park and follow the tracks through the trees.

I rarely encounter anyone at the small car park, doubtless dissuaded by its concealment and its lack of vehicular capacity. A small metal gate leads immediately onto nineteen acres of traditional hay meadow carefully managed by BBOWT with June being the optimum month to visit here as you are greeted by a wealth of  flora and insects. The meadow is, as if an artist has taken his paint box and randomly dabbed a brush with bright colours, infinite times across the entire expanse. There are the bright yellows of hawkbit and kidney vetch, swathes of white in the form of oxe eye daisies, pale blue of scabious and purple pink of knapweed and clover, spread like a tapestry for as far as one can see. A haze of colour amongst the summer grasses, the abundance is breathtaking as occasional paler pink or even white spikes of common spotted orchids grow in the shadier, damper areas. Allow your gaze to slip into neutral and you are looking at a living impressionistic painting that never fails. like all masterpieces, to be both inspirational and life affirming.

I come here most years at this time, my mission two fold, to participate in the joyful ambience of nature's colour and bounty and to seek out two butterflies, the ethereal and beautiful White Admiral  and the Black Hairstreak, rare and highly localised, a speciality of this county and just two of its neighbouring counties. 

The White Admiral to my mind, is one of the most attractive and charming of our native butterflies.Nowhere here are they common, nor anywhere else for that matter as most of our butterfly species are in severe decline and it is only by being protected on reserves such as this that they are able to make a stand for survival.

Today I found an unruly bramble in flower, at the far end of the reserve which accesses Bernwood Forest through another discrete metal gate.It is early in the season and the admirals are in perfect condition, their emergence precipitated by the welcome onset of this warm dry spell.The priority for the emerging buttterflies is to fuel up on nectar which I found one in the act of doing this morning by the sun baked track that runs betwixt meadow and forest, probing into the delicate pink flowers of the bramble, fluttering from flower to flower, gorging on the life sustaining nectar.

White Admirals are striking in appearance, superficially a shock of black and white but in fact dark chocolate brown on their upperwings, both of which are crossed by a broad white band. Flexing its wings it held them open to allow the sun to warm its body and that, combined with the nectar, will power its flight over the remaining few days of its life.The beauty of this butterfly is however not in the bold appearance of its upperwings but the combination of colour and pattern of its underwings, a complex combination of chestnut brown, white and black to outdo even the celebrated Purple Emperor, which also inhabits Bernwood Forest.

It is however the unrivalled gracefulness of their flight that transcends and puts it in such a special place.It flies as if there is no effort required, propelled with the quickest flick of wings into long glides through the twigs and branches of the forest edge, changing direction with bewildering ease, it floats in the dappled shade as if disembodied. 

I watched this particular admiral for some time as it examined each flower with great diligence  until  eventually it was replete.It fluttered  to a horizontal spray of bramble, perching there with splayed wings absorbing the sunshine, 'pancaking' as it is called. A rather crude description for such a graceful insect.

For minutes it never moved but then took to the air and with a casual flick of its wings crossed the track  before me and glided into the green, sun dappled reaches of the forest and was gone.

With the departure of the White Admiral my attention turned to the Black Hairstreak, an altogether different proposition. Tiny, no more than the size of a thumbnail they inhabit the high hedges of blackthorn that circumvent the meadow.

To see one requires supreme patience for they show a predilection for the topmost and thickest parts of the blackthorn where the small, glossed and hard leaves are at their most prolific.The secret is to wait until one flies, often only a very brief flutter and hope that it flies downwards  to settle on a lower leaf rather, than seems to  be more often the case, flutter up to the top of the hedge or even over it into invisibility.

For the most part they imbibe honeydew (the secretions of aphids) from the blackthorn leaves but occasionally are tempted to nectar on the bramble flowers that grow sparsely within the fastness of the blackthorn.This provides an opportunity that can often take hours to realise.

But the trial of will is worth it for the satisfaction of discovering for oneself one of the rarest and most elusive butterflies in Britain, its mouse brown wings decorated with an orange band and row of black spots on the hindwing.Look very carefully and you will see the thin white line that gives the insect its name ( hairstreak) and that runs as a haphazard scribble down the wings.

I stood alone by the blackthorn for almost an hour before one showed itself briefly but frustratingly flew high up into one of the  surrounding oaks. I saw three more but just for moments and only one granted an unrestricted view and that for less than a minute before disappearing. They have a very short flying season  and soon it will be all over for another year. So I considered myself fortunate to see this one

For the most part I was on my own. Departing my world and entering an altogether different one of nature. It's no hardship to be on one's own communing with the natural world. I have, often unwittingly, been doing it all my life and now great store is set on getting out into the natural world for one's mental well being.

Sometimes there come others with the same motive, to stand and stare at the blackthorn and wait to see a Black Hairstreak. Fellow enthusiasts they may be but it is never quite the same idyll, the spell is broken and I feel something has been lost. It is not that I am hostile and will happily chat with another if they wish to speak but for me the desire is to be without distraction or diversion. 

It is difficult to find anywhere in this crowded country to be entirely alone so when the opportunity presents itself it is to be treasured.

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