‘The Butterflies of Sussex’ was published in late April of this year and was written by Michael Blencowe and Neil Hulme. It is an atlas based on an intensive five year survey of all Sussex butterfly species that was undertaken from 2010 to 2014, consequently it contains the most up-to-date and comprehensive information on all the species recorded and is fully illustrated with colour photographs. I had pre-ordered this and was looking forward to receiving it immensely, I have been growing increasingly interested in all Lepidoptera, so I was keen to find out the status and ranges of the butterflies in my own county, and particularly to find out where I could see them.
First off, I was both impressed and slightly surprised at the quality of the publication itself, I wasn’t expecting such a high-level from what is admittedly a relatively niche subject. The hardcover, binding and paper quality is of a high standard, the book feels durable and substantial and the amount of work and care that went into producing it is outwardly evident. One of the first things that I noticed was the illustrative photographs within the atlas; there is a full-page image and several smaller ones per species and the impressively high resolution of the photo reproductions, as well as the artistry of many of the images is really quite fantastic.
What is key with any kind of atlas such as this, where there is a vast quantity of data and knowledge behind it, is to find the best way to present the data and make it digestible to the reader. I think they achieved this admirably with this book, you can tell that there is a huge amount of information within it, but it is all written and explained very clearly, it is not overwhelming or overladen with jargon. The information is also well presented on the page, it isn’t messy or confusing, there are only essential graphs and the maps are excellent. Obviously some readers will want as much data as possible from this sort of publication and some will want a more manageable amount, depending on interest levels, I think the authors strike a perfect balance here.
The writing style itself is engaging, friendly, clear and concise, with an obvious amount of enthusiasm that is infectious. I like that they do not assume a certain level of knowledge from the reader, everything that can be explained is explained, the often complicated biology of some of the species is written as clearly as it can, without being patronising.
As for what’s actually in the book, well it’s pretty much all you could ask for. There are six opening chapters which cover details of the survey itself, the weather, the habitats of Sussex, some history on butterfly recording in the county and a fascinating introduction. Then there are all of the species accounts, grouped into families, then the book ends with a highly useful section on where to watch butterflies in the county.
Obviously, the species accounts are the bulk of the publication and contain the majority of the data collected during the survey as well as many interesting stories, anecdotes, history and extra biological details, which together raise this atlas well above the norm. Each species has an introduction, usually with an enthusiastic and lyrical description of the species’ beauty, then there is the distribution, abundance, flight period, life cycle, top sites to find the species, and all is accompanied by multiple superb photos as well as two distribution maps (one of the recent survey and one of the old 90’s survey) and a flight-curve graph of records against months.
Having read the bulk of the book myself, I can say it is a joy to read if you are even slightly interested in these colourful insects, I have learnt so much that I did not previously know, not just about specifically butterflies in Sussex, but butterflies as a whole. Their biology is incredibly interesting, it is great to read of conservation success stories (and of how many projects to protect these animals are active in the county) for several species as well as alarming to read of the declines in many others. This book has greatly encouraged me (not that I needed much) to go out and find and record these butterflies, quite a few of which I have yet to see for the first time. This is certainly one of the best natural history books I have read, and along with the recent ‘Birds of Sussex’ atlas it confirms that the natural history community in Sussex is one of the very best and most enthusiastic in Britain.