ON THE very last day, in the very last hour of my weekly counts during the summer of butterflies, a painted lady appeared and made the only record for the whole summer.
I record the exact same route of five miles on the optimum day of the week, from April to September.
It makes an accurate sample for the year, 250 other recorders across Britain do the same so we have a fair idea of what is happening to our finest insects.
They represent a clean environment like no other species.
This year there were not many butterflies, but we expected that. Every seven years or so, the numbers bounce back for a couple of years and then fall into a trough for four years.
On a graph the result looks like a hospital heart graph. Not one second apart, but seven years apart.
I had not had a single painted lady on the transect, although one or two had appeared here and there in the county.
On the last day of September, the last official count of the season, with just a few meadow browns, a small copper and a brimstone logged, this beauty appeared, as I was coming to the end of the route.
What it thought it was doing here at such a late date I don’t know. Its parents had come into this country sometime in the early summer from way down in the deep south, perhaps even from North Africa but more likely southern France.
This one was presumably trying to get back to the old ancestral home.
I hope it made the Channel crossing to warmer climes but it more than likely died in the attempt. It could have been in formation with the red admirals which are part of the same family of Vanessinae.
Red admirals have done well this year. You may remember that last great year for painted ladies which was in 2009. They swarmed in their millions into Sussex and many just kept flying onwards and upwards, reaching the Arctic coast and Iceland, where they perished. That year I logged 380 at Kingley Vale, the best since records began in 1976.
For the rest of our butterflies, all 30 species here on the Downs, it wasn’t quite the worst year ever, just the fourth worst. The best ever was in 1991 when I logged a total of over 11,000 butterflies on the transect. Hopefully this work, which is collated by the Butterfly Conservation Society, will continue into the future, giving us all a continuous record of the state of the environment.
Like the canary down the coal mine that dies first at the merest whiff of carbon monoxide thereby warning the miner, these gorgeous beauties of the insect world will tell us if things are going seriously wrong.
We look forward to the next peaks of butterflies in about four years time, painted ladies especially welcome here.