Number 6 - butterfly confetti

Number 6 - 6 August 2006 - Butterflies at Braunton Burrowes

This was the day when I had to literally wade through butterflies. I have never seen so many in such a small area. Braunton Burrowes is, in fact, a huge sand dune system on the north Devon coast, being some 6 x 1.5km in area. I had parked in the Broadsands car park at the southern end and started to slowly wander northwards along a line of vegetation that disappeared into the dunes. It was soon obvious that something special was on offer, as I was disturbing hundreds of butterflies with every few metres that I walked. And this didn't let up for several hundred metres. The air was filled with butterflies, like confetti at a wedding, like a ticker-tape parade along an American city street, like a bizarre multi-coloured blizzard that had gatecrashed a summer's day. There were times that I stopped still, looked around me, and gawped in absolute wonder. I wandered but 600m from the car park. 600m into a reserve that continued for 6km. Wherever I looked there were more butterflies - what if these numbers were replicated across the reserve? It was hard to put a number on what I had seen, but I tried: 4,500 Common Blues, 1,500 Gatekeepers and 250 Meadow Browns were the most numerous species, but there could have been twice that many in reality. A mass emergence across a chalk downland can reach four figures without difficulty, but not along a ribbon of vegetation measuring 3m x 600m. Was this what it used to be like before we poisoned our countryside? Did the Victorian lepidopterists enjoy such bountiful days as these as the norm? Time was pressing, the afternoon was melting away and even if I had wanted to I couldn't have covered the whole reserve in an attempt to estimate the true number - time just to cover a random 3m x 600m strip...

The plants were very special too. I managed to hunt down a number of national rarities, with Sand Toadflax, Round-headed Club-rush, Water Germander and Sea Stock being the highlights. On any other day these would have taken top billing, but not today.


Stewart said…
Hi Steve, I read in the book, 'The Aurelian Legacy' a lepidopterist's notes from the 1700s where he was catching hairstreaks (sp?) by the dozen while standing on one spot! I do believe that before the industrial revolution the wildlife in our countryside must have been something to behold, imagine, no engines, fumes, chemicals, concrete or tarmac anywhere on the planet.... I've just depressed myself.
Steve Gale said…
Thanks Stewart, there's a similar tale to tell about the number of fish in the sea. Reports from the 1400s, 1500s and 1600s tell of unbelievable concentrations in our waters that, by the 1800s, had started to already dwindle.

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