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Summer saved by the September bell

Friday 09 October 2009

A flash of deepest scarlet before his very eyes made our countryside commentator John Sheard a happy man this week. A brief encounter with a butterfly, and a glorious September, made up for one of the most miserable summer for years

I WAS strimming in my allotment when it happened. Something red and black flashed before my eyes and I instinctively tried to brush it away thinking that I was under attack. Fortunately, I missed – but spent the next few seconds in total mystification.

Something strange had settled on my specs and was flashing multi-coloured signals like distressed sailors in a storm. I was going boss-eyed as I squinted at this apparition from nowhere, so I gently removed my specs whilst raising my left hand to protect my eyes.

red admiral
Red Admiral

And there it was, perched happily on the lens, flapping it dramatic wings lazily in the Indian summer sun: one of the most beautiful Red Admiral butterflies I have even seen – and never as such close quarters – and just what I saw in my specs I can only imagine: perhaps it had glimpsed the reflected image of itself and was either a) trying to fight it or b) hoping to mate with it.

This whole incident took less time than it has taken to write it but it added one of the most welcome flashes of colour and rural contentment I have felt during a mostly long, wet and nasty summer. All flying insects, you see, have had a rough old time since a rather nice June – but hopefully a summery September came along just in time to avert a butterfly and moth disaster.

July and August were amongst the wettest summer months ever recorded. This was sad for the tourist trade, with millions of Brits taking so-called “stay-cations” at home because of the collapsing pound abroad, but for insects like bees, butterflies and moths it could have been fatal.

The heavy rain – days of it at a time – meant that flying was difficult. But this was often accompanied by high winds, which made flight nigh on impossible. By mid-summer, there were reports of bees dying of starvation in their hives, one more disaster after another for the threatened honey bee population which I have reported in these pages several times before.

One assumes butterflies and moths suffered the same fate, if not worse: their fragile wings seem much more vulnerable to rain and wind (although they are much tougher than one would expect: several species regularly cross the Channel from France and others even make it across the North Sea).

But then came a glorious September, breaking a much happier record by being one of the driest for many years, and the air was full of fluttering colourful wings. And it spread gloriously (if more patchily) into early October, giving the crops in my allotment a sudden burst of growth bigger than I can ever remember (weeds included, sadly).

That Red Admiral was among one of the biggest hosts of this proud and cocky butterfly I have ever seen. There have been even more of them than the far less welcome Cabbage Whites which decimated my brassicas back in those pleasant months of May and June.

All flying insects have had a rough old time since a rather nice June...

But they were not alone. There have been gorgeous Peacocks, which were much commoner in my youth but seem to be making a bit of a come back, Orange Tips, and a whole variety of moths, including the daylight flying, defiantly green and scarlet Five Spot Burnet, which again was plentiful when I was young but had almost disappeared until four or five years ago.

Then came what is perhaps the added ingredient to this new autumnal butterfly festival, an arrival I had never seen before and which, almost shamefacedly, I had to look up on the net. I learned my butterfly identification skills as a child – as most children did in those days – and although the odd name may have escaped me in my dotage, I know when something is new to me.

So went to www.ukbutterflies.co.uk and after a few minutes nailed (I hope) the name of this small (approximately one inch wing span) creature, brown with very marked white spots on its upper wings. Without actually collecting a specimen (which I did as a child but which is quite unthinkable now) I am pretty sure it was a Grizzled Skipper.

Even the name was new – I had never heard of it before – and it is one of quite a large number of branches of the Skipper family. It is mainly found in southern England (chalk downland is one of its favourite patches – and there is not a lot of that to be found in the North Yorkshire Pennines).

The experts say that it has just penetrated South Yorkshire and that’s some 60 miles away from the southern Dales. So here is perhaps some proof of what the experts have been saying for some years: we are getting warmer and more and more southern species are spreading north.

Without being too cynical about global warming – which I believe to be part of a natural cycle which may have been exacerbated but not caused solely by human activity – this is the first positive sign I have seen that the Yorkshire Dales are heading for a Mediterranean climate, as some claim. If it brings more gorgeous butterflies flocking to my allotment, it will not be all bad!

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