Friday, 22 June 2012

Mountain ringlet

Mountain ringlet

Why do we love butterflies and dragonflies above all other insects? I think it has something to do with the way they embody the fleeting nature of extreme beauty.

A few weeks ago I visited the Lake District, in what must have been it’s annual week of warmth and sunshine. To me this was an invitation to seek out two rare species of butterfly which don’t exist on my home patch in the South East. Partly inspired by Patrick Barkham’s The Butterfly Isles, I decided to set out on a lepidoterous quest (lepidoptera, "scaly-winged insects", hardly does justice to these creatures.)

Mountain ringlet, the first species in my sights, seemed easy enough. The Cumbrian branch of Butterfly Conservation identifies a super-colony on Irton Pike, just up the road from where we were staying. We were a few days early for its annual emergence, but the weather had been warm and sunny for a few days. Sure enough, as we reached the top of the hill we started to see little dark brown butterflies dancing across the Fell and a few settled just long enough for us to see the red spots on their wings.

My partner chasing butterflies on Irton Pike

We met another butterfly enthusiast from Norfolk, also on their trail, who pointed us to the best areas to see them among the mat grass, the foodplant of their caterpillars. Soon we were seeing dozens, but they were far too flighty and fast to photograph clearly. My partner and I must have looked pretty mad chasing them up and down the fell, stumbling over tussocks and into boggy pockets.

Small heaths and green hairstreaks – something of a rarity in Surrey – were everywhere, but we had little time to stop and photograph them.

Mountain ringlet on my fingers
A couple of days later, I returned on a cooler overcast morning, on the hunt for torpid mountain ringlets hiding in the long grass. And my patience was rewarded. Having far less energy to fly, they posed for photographs from all angles and a couple even crawled onto my hand, as I sat in the grass, admiring them.

“Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quiety, may alight upon you.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, 19th century American writer.

Since returning to Surrey, I’ve learnt just how lucky we were to enjoy this bountiful sighting. Many butterfly enthusiasts with decades of experience have never seen a mountain ringlet. By visiting a super-colony on a warm, sunny day we had obviously boosted our chances significantly.

Mountain ringlet in mat grass

As the UK’s only alpine butterfly, the mountain ringlet lives at high altitudes on exposed sites, and emerges in small batches during its flight season – no doubt an evolutionary adaptation to increase the chances of at least one batch catching some fine weather. Individuals live for just a few days; it must be at least 15 degrees Celsius for them to fly and no hotter than 23.  The species is only found in the highlands of Scotland and a few pockets in the Lake District. As our climate warms, it is pushed further and further up the hillside, until eventually (scientists fear), it will run out of mountain to climb.

The view from Irton Pike towards Wast Water

Butterfly Conservation predicts that the mountain ringlet will be extinct in Britain by the 2050s (largely due to global warming). In the words of Peter Marren, author of Bugs Britannica, “this modest brown butterfly has at last achieved a kind of melancholy fame as a victim of climate change and an icon of the fragility of life in a rapidly changing world.”

Read about the second species, the marsh fritillary, in my next blog.

With thanks to the Cumbrian branch of Butterfly Conservation for their help in finding these beauties during my visit and for looking after them and their habitats.

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