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Nature Studies

Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: The Duke of Burgundy lives. But for how long?

If you enjoy the series of cartoons by Gary Larson known as The Far Side, you may remember one which is a split panel, with the top half labelled "The Names We Give Dogs" and the bottom half labelled "The Names Dogs Give Themselves". In the top are two simple men and a simple mutt, and one man is saying to the other: "This is Rex, our new dog." In the bottom are three dogs, talking together. One says: "Hello, I am known as Vexorg, Destroyer of Cats and Devourer of Chickens," while the second dog, standing with the third, smaller dog at his side, says: "I am Zornorph, the One who Comes By Night to the Neighbour's Yard, and this is Princess Sheewana, Barker of Great Annoyance and daughter of Queen La, Stainer of Persian Rugs."

Whether or not you find it funny is a matter of taste – I fell off my chair laughing when I saw it and was incapable of coherent speech for several minutes – but a point which it undoubtedly makes, even if obliquely, is that the naming by humans of other living creatures is entirely arbitrary.

Some of the names we bestow are descriptive. A greenfinch is a green finch. A redbreast, the old name for a robin, has a red breast. Yet others are more obscure, or have a hint of mystery about them, a hint of magic. I'm sure I wouldn't enjoy finding the small and delicate white flower, enchanter's nightshade, quite so much if it weren't for the resonance of its name. It clearly has a backstory, to use the Hollywood phrase (it's actually to do with Circe, the sorceress of the Odyssey). But in all of British wildlife, the organism whose name seems to me to carry the biggest backstory, the most glamorous and romantic load of legend, is the Duke of Burgundy.

It's a butterfly. And if you know anything about the Dukes of Burgundy, what you will expect from it is magnificence. To many people, Burgundy may mean no more now than wine, or, at a pinch, a French holiday destination. But before France was united by its monarchy, the dukedom was an incipient nation-state, stretching from Switzerland to the Netherlands, which in the 15th century threatened to become a rival to France itself. Under its powerful dukes, splendour characterised the Burgundian court, in its music, its painting (Jan van Eyck), its apparel: it was a bejewelled world (for those at the top, of course). But the sneakiest king who ever ruled France, Louis XI, "the spider", decided Burgundy had to go. He wove his webs around the last duke, and Charles the Rash met his end in the snow in the Battle of Nancy in 1477. For all its dazzle and display, Burgundy as an independent entity disappeared with him, swallowed up by France.

I cannot hear the title Duke of Burgundy without thinking of this dramatic story, which 500 years ago convulsed Western Europe: bejewelled magnificence, suddenly snuffed out. This must be reflected in the butterfly, surely? After all, we give rank its due, entomologically, and our red admiral is splendid, and our purple emperor glorious, so must not our winged duke also be magnificent? Instead, in one of the strangest conjunctions in British wildlife, name and creature have nothing in common.

Our own duke comes from a family, the metalmarks, which in Central America produces in-your-face insects of breathtaking splendour, but itself is postage stamp-sized, one of our very smallest butterflies, and easily overlooked. It was first referred to as "Mr Vernon's small fritillary", and why it was raised to the peerage, probably in the early 18th century, is a mystery entirely. Why titchy little Hamearis lucina – its scientific name, referring to Lucina, the Roman goddess of childbirth and first given it by Linnaeus in 1758 – should in English be accorded the title of a doomed and legendary dynasty, no one has the faintest idea. Nothing could be more incongruous.

Yet, it doesn't disappoint. It is brilliance in miniature, a tiny sparkling lattice of brown and marmalade-orange, and it is animated and vivacious, the males instantly fighting off other intruding males in spiralling assaults. It is also our most rapidly declining butterfly, the one most likely to become extinct, having vanished already from much of Britain, something acutely on my mind when I went to seek it out last week on a chalk hill in Hampshire. A good sign: the hill was covered in cowslips, the caterpillar's food plant, and after 10 minutes' searching, there was the butterfly, first one, then another, then half a dozen, miniature orange checkerboards catching the sunlight, pugnaciously rocketing upwards in male-to-male combat. It was a privilege to witness such a rare, elusive and, indeed, vanishing creature, and I tell you that, even if the jewelled magnificence of 15th-century Burgundy was nowhere to be seen, I loved it for its own vivid life.

A rare moment of tranquility in Kew

We talk about taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. What about the image of using a wrecking ball to demolish a greenhouse? That's what aircraft noise does to tranquillity in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The flightpath for Heathrow's northern runway goes over the gardens' very heart, and a landing jumbo on its final approach dumps a load of sickening aural sewage over this wonderful enclosed world, and there's one every two minutes.

But last Sunday, the loveliest day of the spring, there was a blessing: the planes were landing the other way, coming in over Windsor, and for once the shimmering green peace of Kew at its best was untouched. We had a picnic by the edge of the bluebell wood, scarcely believing our luck, and all we could hear was the blackbird singing over us, sounding as pleased as we were.


For further reading

'The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland', by Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington, new edition, British Wildlife Publishing.