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Book Review: From Bullingdon Prison to Brandy Hole Copse

December 13, 2011 2011 Winter No Comments

In January 2009, Patrick Barkham, the Guardian’s Cambridge-educated feature writer, set himself the task of seeing and photographing within the year, every one of the UK’s 59 species of butterflies. Ambitious? Yes. Heroic? Possibly. Nerdy? Maybe. However you judge it, Barkham’s decision resulted in The Butterfly Isles, a rare delight of a book, which has recently been published by Granta Publications.

Queen of Spain Fritillary

Queen of Spain Fritillary

Barkham’s butterfly year began in February, searching for the microscopic eggs of Brown Hairstreaks in the straggly blackthorn trees outside Bullingdon Prison, and it ended in Brandy Hole Copse – of which more, later. The search was led by a burly senior prison officer, who was also a big butterfly enthusiast, and was keen to manage the hedges surrounding the prison in order to help Brown Hairstreaks to live there. During the following nine months, Barkham travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles, and in so doing, he met a range of well-informed, but distinctly specialist, characters. They ranged from Jeremy Thomas, the modest, scholarly Professor of Ecology at Oxford University, who had single-handedly saved four or five British butterflies, including the Large Blue, from certain extinction; through to Maurice Hughes, a powerful-looking Ulsterman who drove Barkham in his souped-up version of a high performance Volvo, from Belfast City Airport to the Craigavon Lakes in Armagh, in order to help him track down Britain’s newest butterfly, a Real’s Wood White.

Barkham is extremely well-informed about the eating and mating habits of each species of butterfly, and about the experiences and recollections by the butterfly collectors of yesteryear. He wears his scholarship lightly, and writes with verve and a beautifully light touch. The book may well become a classic of British nature writing, Barkham was also lucky, as 2009 was a good year for butterflies. For in May of that year, as in 1996 and 2003, Britain was invaded from the Continent by swarms of Painted Ladies. Moreover in June, Butterfly Conservation also discovered a swarm of Heath Fritillaries in a clearing in Blean Woods, just outside Canterbury.

But the peak of Barkham’s year came in October, with the discovery in Brandy Hole Copse, of a Queen of Spain Fritillary. He was alerted to its presence by Neil Hulme, a fit-looking micro-palaeontologist, and the Chairman of the Sussex Branch of Butterfly Conservation, who arranged his work for oil companies around summers seeking butterflies. According to Hulme, the butterfly had probably come from Normandy and followed one of the fingers of Chichester Harbour inland. It was to be Barkham’s sixtieth species, which meant that, by the end of the year, he had seen and photographed one more than he had originally planned.

Barkham’s book ends with some evocative descriptions of the Copse, and with him and Hulme leaning in and admiring the female Queen of Spain ‘as she lay flat out [with] tiny traces of spilt male sperm upon her body’. ‘It was not beyond the bounds of possibility’, Barkham claims, that this single butterfly ‘could be the first generation of a new resident species, the first in a vanguard of Continental butterflies tempted by the warmer currents and milder winters to try their luck across the Channel.’ Let’s hope he is right.

Vincent Porter

Patrick Barkham, The Butterfly Isles. A Summer in Search of Our Emperors and Admirals, Line drawings by Helen Macdonald, Granta Publications. Hardback 2010, paperback 2011.

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