One day we’ll all grow crops of butterflies ...

One day we'll grow crops of butterflies.
One day we'll grow crops of butterflies.

WE USED to see the pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly here in these woods. But not any more and we never did find out why.

We managed the wood as it should, in the old way. Cutting the coppice every seven or eight years to make the flowers grow again and in this case the violets, which is what the pearl-bordered caterpillars eat.

Sometimes in spring after the coppice cut a year before, the wood was as blue as the spring sky with violets. There were clumps of primroses scattered as the stars of night among them all. It was a wonderful sight. We all said: this is what the fritillary needs.

In May we stood and watched as we listened to the turtle doves purring. The sun shone and the wood was warm for we had cut the coppice in two acre blocks so they looked like the chequered patterns on the butterfly’s wings: the fritillus inlaid dice-box of the Romans.

We had scattered these cants randomly so some were sheltered and made hot-sports, the micro climates which would with trapped heat give this insect its best chance. But they faded out despite our best efforts. It was all the more curious because their close cousins the silver-wash fritillaries lied on. Not in the great numbers we had been used to in 1971 it is true. But then in those days forty years ago we had the large tortoiseshell here feeding on buddleia by the back door just outside the kitchen window, with half a dozen purple emperors, a score of red admirals, and peacocks and uncountable clouds of hedge browns, small tortoiseshell and skippers.

What this vast number needed was a vast acreage of old deciduous woods, cut regularly as coppice. That is where this photograph was taken by Cicestrian Brian Henham. Somewhere in West Sussex: no-one wants to say exactly where because the collectors will be there.

Forests and farms have to provide the human race with what it does need most. Food and building material. Our forty acres is as rich as we can make it, but we have to be realists.

But there are many other questions to our Pandora. Are some of the fritillaries in a natural decline anyway, the kind of regular swing that willow warblers have on a twenty year cycle, or the comma butterfly on a century cycle?

Dark green fritillaries swarmed through Sussex on the Downland back in the 1970s. They have all but gone, just as the high brown went but struggles on near Dartmoor. It used to live on Kingley Vale in the 1950s and nothing much has changed there.

One day perhaps, we shall know how to grow crops of butterflies and birds, wild orchids and moths as we know how to grow wheat and tomatoes. It will be as specialised as that. Much of the time, we just hope for the best for all these beauties.

Richard Williamson