Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads

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#SteveLibrary: The Butterfly Isles

One of my earliest memories of being immersed in nature (other than chasing lizards or frogs), is running round a field with a butterfly net trying to catch butterflies. It’s not nearly as easy as it looks, most of the time I ended empty handed or with a newt full of other interesting insects such as soldier beetles (Cantharidae) or ladybirds (Coccinellidae). Due to their rainbow of colours and omnipresence during the long summer holidays, as a child growing up before the advent of broadband and Netflix, I used to spend many an hour outside trying to catch these jewels. In my mind, it was something that everyone did, but apparently not. It helped to secure my love for the natural world and introduced me to ecology, it seems that a similar experience is shared by the Patrick Barkham, author of The Butterfly Isles.

For the uninitiated, there are fifty-nine species of butterflies found in the United Kingdom. This may sound like a large number (and it is) but in comparison to our nearest European neighbours, it is quite low. Germany for example has over 180 species of butterfly and France (including Corsica) has over 260. Our temperate climate and island nature, act as a barrier to some species although as Barkham notes, this number may increase in the future due to climate change. If you were to poll most of the general public, I’d expect that they’d only be able to name a dozen or so butterflies. Whilst we have those fifty-nine species, there are groups that look very alike or are extremely range-restricted which means that most of the populous are unlikely to exposed to them, unless they live near one of those isolated nuclei.

The premise of this book is an interesting on. Patrick Barkham aims to see all fifty-nine species of British butterfly in the wild in a single British summer. This is no mean feat and with the number of miles Barkham wracks up over the course of The Butterfly Isles, it is clear that his commitment to this journey has become obsessive (especially whilst completing his quest whilst working a full-time job). This obsession of course comes with sacrifices which unfortunately sees the end of a relationship. Barkham’s obsession in my mind is justified. Why do I continuously seek out amphibians and reptiles where I go? I was captivated by them as a child, similarly to how Barkham with with butterflies, through his father.

Barkham’s journey across the country to see every species makes for a captivating read (and is a great premise for a book). One thing that I wasn’t able to appreciate before reading it was the previous generations of gentlemen naturalists and butterfly collectors, who referred to themselves as aurelians and not lepidopterists. Interspersed throughout The Butterfly Isles are excerpts from the aurelians of old, sharing their thoughts and ideas about butterflies and the feelings of finally capturing them. Barkham also touches on the conservation of butterflies which is an ever pressing issue, and meets some of the key people helping to keep these colourful insects in our skies. Whilst overzealous collectors can contribute to the depletion of a butterfly’s population, there is no single bigger threat than that of habitat loss and a chance in agricultural practice. The restoration of some butterfly habitat sometimes relies on the re-adoption of traditional techniques, such as coppicing.

Without revealing too much, you’ll be glad to know that Barkham completes his quest, despite the heartache and personal despair. There is one aspect which I feel is missing from this book and that is more information on the pupae and caterpillars of each species. It doesn’t need to be an additional 300 pages but entwinned with the narrative, I feel more attention should be paid to the earlier stages of the butterfly before it reaches it’s adult form that everyone is familiar with. Caterpillars and their chrysalises are often overlooked, I would be lost to identify one without having a handy field guide to check unless staring at one of the more recognisable species.

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