Of Dukes and Men

John Solomon

Harewood Forest, 2 May 2020.

A butterfly exploration.

I make no apologies for this probably being the shortest blog I’ll ever post. I
left the house around three o’clock with one target species in mind, driving up
past Walworth Industrial Estate and taking the B3400 towards Whitchurch.
Here, driving past the Arbory rest home on the right, is the mile long stretch of
road known as Andover Down with some rather pleasant properties,
particularly to the right hand side. At the end of the straight the road curves
round to the left and on the right hand side is a lay-by that is very handy for
where I wish to go. I pull in and lock the car up, then walk back along the
verge. Just past the first house, which used to be a pub years ago, is a
footpath that ultimately leads to the Middle Way, although I am not going to go
that far.


The public path is completely shaded here with coppiced hazel and overhung hundred-year-old oaks. I pause here. Usually I would be seeing some butterflies, at this time of year brimstones, a peacock or two, perhaps a tortoiseshell or a comma; but today I see nothing. Not a good omen, but understandable as although the sun is out and the sky clear it is still only around 16 degrees and there is a light but fresh wind blowing. The insects have decided to keep out of sight and I am glad I have my fleece on.

I follow the path on beneath towering oaks with their fresh leaves. After three hundred
yards there is a large area to the left which was cleared perhaps ten years
ago and planted with young trees. Their growth has been remarkably slow
and it is still very open – a good potential location for today’s quarry.

This estate was previously owned by Captain Andrew Wills and was effectively open to the public, so long as they behaved themselves. He actually recognised the value of this wood, the largest ancient woodland in Hampshire outside the New Forest. At one point the estate was offering a significant section of it to the local council, specifically for public use providing they took on its upkeep. However, the council of the time did not consider that it could afford this.

Captain Wills died in 1998 and the running of the estate, including Harewood Forest, became the responsibility of his son, Richard, who clearly has a different approach. The local nature fraternity has attempted to open a dialogue to permit scientific observation, but so far has been unsuccessful.

The estate breeds non-native pheasants* for shooting and has deer stalkers.

When I was an art student, some forty-odd years ago, a keeper (Mr Heagren) took me round to some of their sites in the wood allowing me to photograph and sketch the birds for a college project. Clearly the few members of the public who visited the place
did not make for a problem then. With the pheasant breeding they may well not want the public running everywhere, willy-nilly, particularly if those people brought with them dogs on the loose, but it is difficult to see what problem the occasional nature geek with a notepad and camera might cause. Also I wonder if the owners of this unique environment wouldn’t be interested to know what is actually here, on the land they have ‘borrowed’.

Anyway, advice, if you visit this delightful wood do not step off the footpath.

Not far, just a few yards. I am near the location where I would hope to
find my target species, that is less than a hundred yards away, and I have
heard that last year one or two were spotted here … but not by me.

I emerge into the sunshine at a small crossroads of tracks. As if to warn me I have simply chosen the wrong day the sun immediately goes in and it is suddenly very chilly.

This is where I first found the species I am looking for today. Twenty years
ago I brought my girlfriend here and we spent the afternoon sat right beside
this crossroads underneath the Scots pine and all afternoon another flirty pair
joined us. I didn’t realise what they were at the time. It wasn’t until perhaps
ten years ago that she and I were walking here in very early June, by which
time I was much more actively involved with wildlife, that we found a very pale
and worn specimen sitting on the bracken fifty yards further on along the left
of the footpath.

Now I am moving very slowly and searching for a glimpse of anything that might be something … but I still miss it. Something is startled up off the ground by my clumsy steps and flutters away … for just two or three yards, then lands and although it is very small, wings only around a centimetre long, I can see it … and I can see it is exactly
what I came here for:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


This is a Duke of Burgundy butterfly. Very rare for a long time, but over the last
decade making a strong recovery, mainly down to work done by various
conservation groups, not least Butterfly Conservation. There are believed to
be at least two small and vulnerable colonies in Harewood. (How many more if only we could get to explore this large site?)

I’m extremely happy with the photo but, of course, would now like to get one of the upper wing surface, so spend the next 45 minutes being led a merry chase. I do manage to get a couple of good sightings and can see that it is a male. This is to be expected. The date is early for the butterfly and in the insect world it is usually the males that emerge first, ready to “romance” the females as soon they join them. As far as nature is concerned the only thing that matters is that creatures mate. Nature clearly couldn’t care less whether or not I gain the picture of the upper wing surface that I want. Perhaps another day.

* David adds: Pheasant breeding is banned in the Netherlands due, they say, to its adverse environmental effects. Many in the UK environmental / conservation organisations would encourage the UK government to follow a similar approach. Chris Packham has views which you may wish to look up.

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