From the dead white mounds of chalk rise living jewels that spiral in the light, fragrant air; they seem like animated flower heads broken free from their stems – powered not by the random wafting of wind but by a spark of life from the sun itself. I talk of butterflies of course, the much admired siblings of moths, and of the south downs which are a haven for these energetic shreds of insect life. I have long known how this range of short-cropped chalk hills are a hot-spot for all invertebrate wildlife but I only recently became aware that they harboured a fragile and tiny cluster of populations of one of our rarest butterflies. So I set off one warm afternoon earlier this week on a determined hunt for His Grace the Duke of Burgundy.
Whitethroats sang twittering sentences from the top of a hedge, at the base wild flowers were sprouting from fresh green stems, revealing their identities as Speedwell – Crosswort – White Dead-nettle – Dandelion – Stitchwort – Campion (red, white and pink) each name a lyrical journey into the distant past of our language. A male warbler sporting his namesake black cap (as though he had been dipped in soot) trilled, whistled and fluted his melody from within the glowing green depths of a Hazel bush that stood by the path. Most excitingly a Red Kite drifted above, playing the air currents with its forked tail and long wings as a fish does in a stream; a crow (small in comparison) harassed this noble scavenger in vain.
Reaching the peak of the down that rises near-vertically from the edge of Heyshott village we walked down the northern flank onto the treasured reserve of short calcareous turf, speckled with flowers as the night-sky is with stars. These slopes were once quarried for chalk long ago and the higgeldy-piggeldy landscape is testament to this heritage; the land rises and falls, dipping into round hollows then rising into irregular peaks. The breeze did not blow in this sheltered spot and the warm sun glowed through the cloud layer, perfect butterfly weather.
Net in hand I strode across the turf hoping to put up a resting insect from the sward by waving the handle before me low over the ground, for ten minutes there was nothing but the smiling yellow heads of Cowslips and freshly erupted spearheads of deep purple orchids. Then in a hollow a very small fast-moving sprite appeared as though born from the earth, it deftly evaded my clumsy net sweeps and darted away over the grassland. After a short chase I managed to trap it in my net, I could see this small butterfly crawling around under the netting – it was a skipper, but what species? I reached in with my hand but the little beast was too fast and slipped out and away. I lunged with the net and missed, but unexpectedly the skipper landed of its own accord upon my net which now lay on the ground.
It sat calmly, with wings spread, allowing me to get in close and photograph it. After a brief check in the field guide it was confidently declared to be a Dingy Skipper Erynnis tages. I was taken by the unusual qualities of this species; it is easily our plainest, dullest butterfly and also the most moth-like, whilst also being one of our scarcest. The wings of my individual were patterned with irregularly shaped stripes of coffee-brown on a background the colour of frothy hot-chocolate (it should be called the mocha skipper, much more flattering). The body was short and fat, adding to the moth comparison, but with very dainty, striped antenna that gave it away as a butterfly.
Not finding any other Lepidoptera in this area we walked along the escarpment, at a bend in the track I paused to scan a patch of likely-looking turf for my quarry, there were no butterflies but I did quite unexpectedly bump into a big, furry, night-flying beast. Hugging a dead stem, close to the ground and totally motionless was a moth. It was the size of my thumb and white as ermine, the wings were striated with zig-zags of black like charcoal marks and the body was as furry as any kitten. This sleeping-beauty was comatose as it awaited the rising of the moon, oblivious to my presence, known appropriately as a Puss Moth.
We reached the next area of well-managed grassland, as lumpy as the first, and I began to walk up a knoll when I was caught totally by surprise as a small brown butterfly with flashes of orange rose up from my feet. It rested briefly on a small shrub and I could immediately see that it was none other than His Grace Hamearis lucina. I was beside myself. It flew off before I got a decent look but after a short wait it and a second Duke returned to the same patch of short grass and engaged in a spot of territorial battle with a pirouette together in the air. One landed to bask in the sun allowing me to very carefully creep to within a few inches of it, snapping away with my camera in case it flew.
The Duke was very tame, I could see every detail; only a few centimeters across the wings were edged with white pearls and covered in three parallel rows of odd-shaped patches the colour of a burning sunset. All four wings had a solid brown background the shade of an antique oak-wood cabinet that has centuries of varnish piled on top, even its eyes were visible as black specks edged in white. This unique species is one of the UK’s rarest with a small, fragmented and dwindling range mainly in central-southern England, it is also the only member of its genus and the only representative of the ‘Metalmark’ family of butterflies in Britain, being mostly neo-tropical.
I was chuffed to bits at seeing this gem and enjoyed a good few minutes watching several of them flying and resting in this one spot, I was then fortunate enough to come across several more around the rest of the reserve. Whilst looking for more Dukes I let out a loud gasp of wonder as a vivid, tropical green triangle of colour in the shape of a butterfly landed on a leaf before me. It could be nothing else but a Green Hairstreak; the only British species that has under-wings a shade of iridescent emerald. It was like being visited by a real fairy, it was almost magical, this tiny and delicate paper-thin creature glowing with a colour that nothing else in the country shares; I would not have been overly surprised if it had started talking to me.
Alas it scarpered before I could photograph it; I then chased and searched for it for half an hour but despite a couple of high-speed encounters with this green apparition I could get no image as proof. Fortunately this is not an uncommon species and is found across Britain in many habitats so hopefully I will meet this pixie again.
The views north across the western wield from this slope were magnificent, the weather was delightful, the wildlife (insect and floral) was sublimely pretty and exhilarating; I had succeeded in my quest for a special organism and seen plenty else of interest too. This was spring and nature at its best, my mind was swept clean and healthy from an afternoon of intense nature-exposure, right there and then I needed nothing else on Earth – for surely if butterflies, sun and flowers don’t make you happy then you are a lost cause.