RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Look out for camera-shy boy racer butterfly


YOU JUST could not miss this butterfly, could you? It is so big, so bright: a guardsman on parade outside Buckingham Palace showing itself to the tourists. Such a smart uniform, with immaculate pinstripes. So why have you never seen one?

On this week’s walk through Ebernoe I saw several. I tried to photograph them, too, but I have not the skill of Cicestrian Brian Henham, who took this picture.

First of all, he has the patience and hunting instinct of the tiger. Having caught his prey, he hauls it home to his den and feeds it to his pet computer. The digital mantis inspects, examines, then begins its patient digestion. Each subject is treated to the same care that NASA gave to Neil Armstrong with his stars and stripes on the cold, bleak surface of the moon.

Actually, this butterfly, called the brown hairstreak, is no bigger than a fly. You need the commitment of the artist to turn this insect into a star which everyone wants to meet. I have some in my garden, too, but over the years I have never got close enough to make sense of the subject. As I was having a cup of tea just now, outside the back door, I watched one whizzing like a dervish above my head. All I could see was an orange dot, spinning round and round in frenzied distraction like a child with a sparkler at a party.

I have hardly ever seen one sitting still. Once or twice I have, but they were out of reach, 20 feet up in the bushes. Then they were off again like a whirligig, a spinning top, a Catherine wheel. Why this madcap flight?

Well, you have perhaps seen those circular tyre marks in car parks or on race tracks where young blokes have been showing off in their cars. It’s a bit like that. Look at me: I’m a whizz-kid.

Having said all that, I have to tell you that the picture here is actually of a female brown hairstreak. No doubt there are guardspersons, like the Queen on parade. You can tell this one is a female by the red edges to her wings.

Two centuries ago she was thought to be a separate species and was called the golden hairstreak.

Very occasionally she might open her wings wide and then you would see a large scarlet patch across her fore wing.

She is much quieter, and creeps about over the leaves of blackthorn bushes, where she will lay her eggs.

Once you have located a colony, there they will be every year, faithful to that very bush.

That is why we manage the blackthorn shrub in this reserve around my garden, coppicing the bush bit by bit, year by year, to keep fresh young growth for the caterpillars.

This is pretty well the last butterfly of the year, and should be flying throughout September and even into October if the weather is kind.

It is also perhaps the most difficult one to find, so good hunting!