Butterflies that bring glamour to the Norfolk Broads

Driving hundreds of miles to see Britain's largest butterfly, the exotically coloured swallowtail, is a price worth paying for Michael McCarthy

A A A

Elation, wonder and curiosity – they were three emotions involved in seeing three of Britain's rarest butterflies. Elation was for the swallowtail, our most glamorous insect, finally tracked down in its Norfolk Broads home on Friday after an initial safari proved fruitless. Wonder was for the heath fritillary, a handsome lattice of orange and black now restricted to a handful of sites, but found flying in thousands on Saturday, in a dappled clearing deep in a Kentish wood. And curiosity was for the black hairstreak, a pint-sized creature located on a nature reserve open day in Northamptonshire yesterday – surrounded by photographers.

As the destinations indicate, to see these three species on three successive days involved a lot of travelling – the total mileage was 722 miles, starting in each case from west London. Yet the hours behind the wheel were in each case rewarded with memorable encounters with the natural world.

With the swallowtail, there was no alternative but to trek to the Broads, as this is its remaining home in Britain. Like the Granville fritillary on the Isle of Wight, or the chequered skipper in western Scotland, both of which we have already covered as part of The Independent's Great British Butterfly Hunt, this is a butterfly now restricted to one area, and if you want to catch sight of Papilio machaon you have to make the journey to Norfolk.

It's worth it. When you see it, you are taken aback. You stare, as if you can't quite believe what you're looking at. For in form and colour both, the swallowtail is magnificent. It is Britain's largest butterfly, and its extravagant mix of black and yellow, with two spots of crimson, combined with its long black spiky tails, give it an air of the exotic which make it stand out amid the gentle greenery of our countryside.

We went looking for it at Catfield Fen, a wetland on the edge of Barton Broad and a noted swallowtail site, accompanied by two experienced members of Butterfly Conservation's Norfolk branch, Mandy Gluth and Bernard Watts. They were optimistic we would find it; they were wrong. Although Bernard caught sight of two, I missed them both, and after a morning and half an afternoon scanning the reed beds and sedge beds in unfavourable weather – showers and a strong wind – I remained swallowtailless, with a mounting anxiety that I might have driven 170 miles for nothing.

Mandy and Bernard decided to try a different site: How Hill, a former country estate which is now an environmental education centre, a few miles away, on the river Ant. And here, almost immediately, we were successful – perhaps because the sun had come out – for in a meadow by the riverside, a swallowtail was nectaring on the purple flowers of marsh thistle, and was quickly joined by two more. I was elated, and like several butterfly-watchers already in the meadow, I was agog at the sight: they seem positively outlandish. It's not a scene you can forget.

Yet just as memorable was the spectacle the following day of enormous numbers of one of our least common butterflies, the heath fritillary. This now exists in only a tiny number of places in the West Country, Essex and Kent, but the Kentish colony, in Blean Woods near Canterbury, is a strong one, thanks to the work of the local RSPB warden, Michael Walter, who carefully manages the habitat for the butterfly as well as for birds. On Saturday, Michael took me deep into the woodlands – about two miles down a track – then branched off down a side track into an open glade, and there we suddenly found heath fritillaries flying in thousands, fluttering a foot or so above the vegetation and catching the light in a silence broken only by birdsong. It seemed like the clouds of butterflies people used to talk about, before the natural world was degraded by chemicals.

The third of the weekend's rare species was a small butterfly now restricted to a few colonies in the East Midlands, the black hairstreak. This we found at Glapthorn Cow Pastures, a Northamptonshire nature reserve run by the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire and Peterborough. Finding it wasn't hard: it was an open day on the reserve and staff were on hand to direct visitors to a patch of brambles, where a single black hairstreak, its wings unfortunately closed as always when at rest, was surrounded by half a dozen enthusiastic butterfly photographers, all pointing tree-trunk-sized long lenses at a butterfly hardly bigger than your thumbnail. But there it was.

These three species, plus another two – red admiral, seen at Catfield Fen, and ringlet, seen at Glapthorn - brought The Independent's own total in the Butterfly Hunt to 35 out of 58. We are well on the way to our aim of seeing all the British species in a single summer. But perhaps this account illustrates that to accomplish it, quite a lot of time, expense and travel is necessary. For anyone struggling to do it, we can recommend a book – Discover Butterflies in Britain by David Newland (illustrated left) published by WildGuides Ltd ( www.wildguides.co.uk). This shows where all the British butterfly species can be seen, with directions on how to get to them and how to move around inside the sites once there. Most of the locations from which we have reported are featured in the book.

The Great British Butterfly Hunt: Species 27-29 (of 58)

In the tenth of our status reports, we describe three rare butterflies which all require a journey to be seen, plus good weather and a certain amount of luck. All are very uncommon but, hopefully, their numbers remain stable for the moment.

27. Swallowtail Papilio machaon

*The great glamourpuss of the British lepidoptera, unmistakeable in its outlandish livery of banana yellow and black, with blue and crimson thrown on for good measure. Apart from – perhaps – the purple emperor, it is the only British butterfly which can match tropical species for striking appearance. Many butterfly enthusiasts make special trips to Norfolk to set eyes on it.



*Larval food plant: Exclusively milk parsley, a wetland plant of the carrot family. Continental swallowtails use a wider range of plants.



*Where seen: Once found throughout the fens, and even down into the Thames Valley, but since its extinction on Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire in the 1950s it has been confined to the Norfolk Broads, despite attempts to reintroduce it elsewhere.



*Current conservation status: Not enough sites to construct a trend but thought to be stable and doing well on a few Broadland nature reserves.

28. Heath fritillary Melitaea athalia

*This is a very attractive small butterfly which seems black in the middle and orange on the outside. It was known as "the woodman's friend" because as new coppices were cut inside woods (to provide a supply of long thin branches for poles and fencing) it would follow with its breeding from one coppice to another.



*Larval food plant: Common cow-wheat, a plant of coppices and clearings inside woodlands.



*Where seen: At just a few sites, in sheltered heathland valleys on Exmoor and on grassland in Devon and Cornwall, and in Kent, where the butterfly is found in woodland clearings.



*Current conservation status: A terrible long-term decline – 68 per cent since 1984 – but things have picked up in the past five years owing to strenuous conservation measures.

29. Black hairstreak Satyrium pruni

*The hairstreaks are small butterflies related to the blues, fairly inconspicuous and pretty difficult to track down, often spending time in the treetops. Finding and getting a good look at a black hairstreak is regarded as an achievement by many a butterfly watcher.



*Larval food plant: Blackthorn (the spiny shrub that produces sloes).



*Where seen: In woodland glades where there is a plentiful supply of blackthorn, in a very restricted area of the south and east Midlands, especially Northamptonshire.



*Current conservation status: Too elusive and too difficult to count to provide a trend, but thought to be holding its own.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little