RICHARD WILLIAMSON Nature Trails... Purple emperors arrive early

JPOS Richard Williamson'July 21
JPOS Richard Williamson'July 21

Purple emperors have once again broken the record for early arrival in West Sussex.

Anne Winter telephoned to say she had seen her first one on Sunday, June 26, near Horsham. But her companion for the day Neil Hulme, well-known in butterfly conservation circles as she is herself, had seen one even a few days earlier.

My earliest ever date was June 30, in the hot drought of 1976, since when the beautiful big and majestic insects with their royal robes of purple and white trimmings have appeared on July 4.

If you glance back into history for the arrival of this spectacular butterfly, entomologists give the usual date of emergence of the adult from the chrysalis as July 14, or even into the last week of the month. But everything is getting earlier.

My photograph I have used before in this column, two years ago, but make no excuses for running it again. It really is the biggest joke of any story surrounding his royal highness, this monarch of the glen.

For two years ago, while standing outside the back door in my sandals on July 4, looking skyward for the thrilling first view of the year, I felt something tickling my foot and looking down saw his majesty on my cheesy old sandal, drinking sweat salts from the straps. Whatever it was I had perspired in my week or month of marathon running around the woods and downs and saltmarshes of Sussex, the purple emperor found extremely tasteful. Waste not want not.

So engrossed was his majesty in my foot that he stayed there for five minutes or more while my wife found the Pentax and handed it to me as I froze. I took several frames before he had his fill of the horrid feast and flew energetically up into the treetops, never needing to come back down again for a refill.

He was by then set up for matrimony and would have waited for the emergence of the female purple emperor.

As usual that year and for the previous 37 years here, we have watched the paired Apatura iris enjoying the last grand fling of love-making above the crowns of the old oak trees surrounding this house.

Every year the pairs have used the same oak canopy throne for mating, and every year we have watched them going off into the afternoon sunshine at great speed on their circular courtship flights.

This is one of the highlights of summertime and anyone can enjoy the same every year within the big oak woods of Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire.

But it seems you can no longer wait for the school holidays as we used to do so decades ago. By then it is all over. Maybe after several more decades have passed people will be looking for this majestic of all British butterflies at half term, then at the end of the spring holidays.

Meanwhile the females will now be looking for their favourite willow trees on which to implant their eggs which will become the future royal dynasty.

Maybe one of those eggs now being laid will develop into a royal that needs to hunt down a rather gruesome Cinderella sandal.