Clever naturalists came up with some wonderful names

Silver-washed fritillary.
Silver-washed fritillary.

WHAT poets the old naturalists were. Killers too of course. Nature was so abundant though, and the old boys in their tweed jackets and breeches, canvas leggings and deerstalkers often had nothing to do after Sunday duties.

My grandfather was one of them and spent his days while at Walberton House near Arundel collecting snail shells, birds’ eggs, and shooting pheasants.

That was in 1888 and science was well into evaluating what the great outdoors had to offer. Oscar Wilde said of them: “They stick pins in things and call them names.”

After the taxonomy of Linnaeus and at the other extreme the ancient country names for fauna and flora the serious naturalists of the 18th century were laying down all those permanent English names which now roll so wonderfully off the tongue.

Take this example for instance, the silver-washed fritillary as named by Moses Harris in 1766. At first it had been called the greater silver-freaked fritillary but the latter name prevailed.

Just as well really. You can see where it got its name when you see those lovely silvery bands under its wing. They distinguish it from the other frits.

Then, what a clever mind to think up the word fritillary, borrowed from the Latin fritillus which to Rome meant a little dice box inlaid with bits of ivory and ebony, sandalwood and cedar.

As for all the names given to hundreds of species of moths; reading those is like hearing the ring of a Shakespearean sonnet: slender brindle, dusky brocade, uncertain, confused, rosy underwing, pinion-streaked snout and the neglected rustic are names out of fantasy and the world of magic. But to return to the silver-washed fritillary.

Today the interest is in conserving the great outdoors and much has been printed as to how we should actually farm butterflies for public enjoyment and genetic banking.

The latest handbook on Best Practice issued by Butterfly Conservation of Dorset describes how to get the best out of your woodland for the silver-washed as well as for all the British species. Dog violets must be encouraged to feed the caterpillars. Wide but structured rides providing nectar source and shelter are also useful as deer control avenues and sight lines.

Old coppice must be cut on rotation providing warm glades.

If there is no woodland then high old hedges may well be used by this beautiful July high flyer if the violets are there as well. This is farming the environment for natural species, something that would have amazed my old grandfather although many of the old school reared insects for collection in their greenhouses and orangeries.

I never knew my grandfather, he died the year I was born but I have all the bits and pieces of his very long and happy life including all the things he collected.

Richard Williamson