Go down to Kew in lilac time, wrote the poet Alfred Noyes in a ditty called The Barrel Organ, singing the praises of the blossoms and the birds in the Royal Botanic Gardens at the height of the spring. Shame he didn’t mention the butterflies.
For Kew Gardens is where The Independent began its own part of The Great British Butterfly Hunt this week, with auspicious results. In the course of a single visit - with the lilacs blooming, and still more, the bluebells - we sighted six of the dozen early spring butterflies we have already profiled. With casual sightings earlier of two more, this takes us up to eight species, in our innovative attempt to see all 58 British butterflies in the course of a single summer - and April is not yet over.
Today we once more invite readers to join in the hunt , not least as a low-cost, all-summer cheering-up exercise in the current economic gloom. Butterflies are free, remember, in more than one sense - free-flying, which is a great part of their charm, but these most beautiful of all the insects cost you nothing to gaze upon. We invite you to join our quest to see as many as possible, and the person or group sighting the most will win a special safari with the charity Butterfly Conservation, to find for the last and most elusive of all the British species, the brown hairstreak.
To enter, briefly record your sightings as you make them - species, place and date seen, and your name - on the butterfly blog (write the sighting under ‘leave a comment’) . Record them also in your own butterfly diary, and send us this, with a short description of your hunt as a whole, by 12 noon on Monday August 17. (We will publish an address to send it to later, as the Independent is shortly moving.)
Schools are particularly welcome to enter, and we give below details of how to obtain the Independent's stunning glossy wallchart of all Britain's 58 butterfly species, which was given away free on Thursday April 9 - Maunday Thursday - and timed for the Easter weekend, but came out when schools had broken up. Schools, or indeed anyone who missed it, can now obtain a copy of the chart entirely free: simply follow the directions in the box below.
We suggest you start your hunt the way we did, in your local park, where many of the commoner early spring species will be visible (it is only later that you will have to start making special trips). You need a warm sunny day, as butterflies, like all insects, are cold-blooded and need to warm up before they become active; a rainy day will mean disappointment. Your corresponden’s local park, in south-west London, just happens to be Kew Gardens, and this is a superlative butterfly site, and well worth a trip.
Although it is the world’s most celebrated botanical garden, Kew manages its 300 acres for British butterflies (and other wildlife) as well as for its sensational international plant collection, and the results are a pleasure to behold, with 28 species - just under half the British total - having been recorded. One day this week I went for a two-hour visit, and in the glorious spring sunshine with which we have been blessed, saw six different ones.
All were appealing, but perhaps the most charming were the two which best personify the English spring, the orange tip and the brimstone, both to be seen in the conservation area around Queen Charlotte's cottage in the gardens’ south-west corner. The orange tip shows a dazzling contrast between its pure white wings and their jazzy orange ends, while the larger brimstone is like a fluttering, butter-coloured leaf (this may be the origin of the word ‘butterfly’). Elsewhere, two attractive brown butterflies were visible: in the collection of oak trees along the Thames was the speckled wood, chocolate brown with cream rings on its wings, sprialling up from sunny patches to chase off its rivals, and along the cedar walk was the comma, a warmer brown, with a characteristic flight pattern of flitting then gliding. Small whites were everywhere, jinking over the spectacular seas of bluebells and landing on some to take their nectar; and fluttering around a hawthorn bush near the pagoda, I saw a small scrap of flying blue silk: a holly blue. Two earlier sightings had been casual, when I was not specially looking: on April 5, in a cemetery on Merseyside, I saw my first butterfly of the year, a peacock, and in a garden in Dorchester on April 10, I saw a small tortoiseshell.
Eight down, fifty to go. Next week, as the Independent’s Great British Butterlfy Hunt gets moving, we hope to bring you the results of our first expedition into the countryside for less common species: the Duke of Burgundy, the green hairstreak, and a couple of skippers.