Wednesday, 28 November 2012

100 miles and 2 hours later …

East Blean Woods, 20 June 2012

… I finally arrived at my destination, East Blean Woods in Kent, my target the beautiful Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia). I arrived at around 7.45am, much later than planned, though my final decision to visit wasn’t made until around 5.15am when I woke after an unsettled night. The temperature, a humid 16°C, had already raised a number of males into flight, the dappled light conditions proved challenging …

Managed by the Kent Wildlife Trust, East Blean Woods covers 122 hectares of ancient woodland and chestnut coppice situated on a patchwork of differing soils. It holds protected designation as a National Nature Reserve (NNR), a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The woods have historically been managed and after the coppice is cut, much of the ground is colonised by Common Cow-wheat (Melampyrum pretense), the primary larval food plant of M. athalia.

In 1934, the artist and lepidopterist F. W. Frowhawk wrote, “During the past half-century this butterfly has disappeared from many of its haunts where it was formerly abundant, and now occurs only in a few of the southern English counties. Its chief localities are in Kent, Devon and Cornwall; in Sussex it was formerly common, but now exists only in limited numbers.” He goes on to say “In Essex, where several females were liberated about ten years ago, it is now abundant.” He also claims “Its apparent extermination in certain localities was largely due to over-collecting, combined with extensive rearing of pheasants, as both the young and old of this bird, especially during the breeding season, destroy an enormous number of insects, especially ground-feeding larvae.” Fortunately the butterfly still occurs in Kent, Essex, Devon, Somerset and on the Devon-Cornwall border, albeit in much reduced numbers, though it has sadly long been lost from my home county of Sussex. The Exmoor and East Blean colonies are currently recognised as its principal strongholds. This is one of Britain’s rarest butterflies, which without carefully targeted conservation efforts, i.e. burning and bracken control on Exmoor and coppicing and ride widening in the Blean Woods complex in Kent, it is inevitable that a rapid decline of this delicate species would be seen. Long may its presence grace our countryside ...

A freshly emerged female below ...

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