Butterfly chaser who was branded mad for her pursuit of the insects

The latest leg of our hunt takes us to the Isle of Wight to hear the inspiring story of Eleanor Glanville
  • @mjpmccarthy

If you are a female butterfly enthusiast, does it follow that you are likely to be mad? So thought the relatives of Eleanor Glanville (c1654 – 1709), a keen entomologist and butterfly collector from Lincolnshire. Her family members tried to have her will set aside after her death, claiming "none but those who were deprived of their Senses, would go in Pursuit of Butterflies".

But their action failed, and Lady Glanville's reputation survived and lives on in a handsome insect named after her, the Glanville fritillary, nearly as rare today as a female butterfly enthusiast was 300 ago. It is found on the Isle of Wight (apart from occasionalappearances on the Hampshire coast opposite) and anyone trying to spot all our 58 butterfly species in a single summer, as we are aiming to do in The Independent's Great British Butterfly Hunt, has to travel across the Solent in late May or early June, in pursuit of Melitaea cinxia.

The Glanville, a typical fritillary, with chequered orange and black on the wings, was once found over much of England but died out, and now nearly all the British population is in an eight-mile strip along the Isle of Wight's south-west coast, where the sandy cliffs and the chines, the small valleys, are subject to frequent landslips.

In the disturbed and nearly bare ground created by the landslips the Glanville lays its eggs on ribwort plantains, the food for its caterpillars, which need the warmth created by direct sunshine. It is such a sun-loving species that only the south-facing edge of the island's coast is able to sustain it, although there is speculation that with global warming, the butterfly may return to the mainland.

We went with Robin Curtis, a biologist who has been studying the insect for more than a decade, supported by the Isle of Wight Natural History Society, and we found Glanvilles in profusion overlooking the sea. They were fluttering about the flowerheads of sea pinks and bird's foot trefoil, taking nectar, with males chasing the slightly larger females in their hundreds, shining bright gold in the sunshine. "It's quite an enigmatic butterfly, in that its food plant is ridiculously common but its habitat requirements are so specific," Robin said. "It requires plantains from the hottest part of the ground."

The Isle of Wight is a butterfly hot-spot, and we found six further species, small copper (already profiled), green hairstreak, small blue and large skipper (profiled here), plus common blue and wall brown (to be profiled later). With the Glanville, this brings the total of species we have found in the Great British Butterfly Hunt to 26; 32 to go.