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His Imperial Majesty

This is turning into a truly great summer. It’s going to inspire some seriously fired up young naturalists, not least because it’s not getting wrecked by exams, for once! The exam system was bad enough for young naturalists, cricketers and hay-fever sufferers during my youth (I tick all three boxes) but has strengthened its grip on young considerably since then.

It was children’s literature that inspired me into becoming a naturalist, even more than the wonderful West Somerset and West Sussex countryside I grew up in. A whole load of now long-forgotten books fired me up, from almost before I could read. I used to go for walks in the lovely landscapes illustrated in the Ladybird books of What to Look for in Spring / Summer / Autumn and Winter.

The Purple Emperor butterfly, which became my life’s work, was discovered in a children’s novel called Brendon Chase: a barely plausible story of three boys who decide to go feral in the woods and live off the land, rather than go back to boarding school at the end of the Easter hols, and face exams. They have a series of profound adventures in nature. At the height of the book one of them sees the elusive Purple Emperor. That was too much for me, aged ten: I was hooked, on the Emperor and on escapist experiences within the natural world.

Six years later I saw my first Purple Emperor, in a life-changing moment. Nature offers us such moments aplenty, and it’s perfectly normal.

Of course, the Purple Emperor turned out not to be the mystical creature of ancient oak forests I thought it was. Rather, it’s a fearless and amoral thug capable of living in a surprising range of habitats, including suburbia. Moreover, the male’s electrifying iridescence isn’t something out of a Romantic poem. They use beauty as a weapon against each other, the most attractive male gets the best territory and wins the most females – something like that.

This is a canopy-dwelling insect which we tend to glimpse only through narrow vistas in its treetop world, and which tends to occur only at low population level – around small patches of low-quality habitat. We’re down here, he’s up there. Fortunately, he’s the size of a small bird and is an unmistakable show off, but you need bins to work Emperors. It’s really a birders butterfly.

Because I have written every sighting down – when, where, what, why – I was able to crack what they were doing. It still took over forty years. I couldn’t have done it without Knepp Wildland, the pioneer rewilding site in Sussex which supports an unusually large and visible population. This is less than a mile from where I saw my first Emperors.

My book explains male and female behaviour. There is also a chapter on how to look for Purple Emperors – when, where and how. The techniques for spotting this butterfly are unique. This is not a normal butterfly. In fact, it’s silly – and this is a silly book (if you want statistics, look elsewhere; the Emperor doesn’t do them, or hard science). This butterfly is capable of doing anything, and I mean anything, and can turn up anywhere (e.g. Departures in Gatwick Airport, the steps of the High Court in London – anywhere).

I also studied the egg, caterpillar and pupal stages. Imagine being stuck in an exam – pick your worst subject – for ten long months. That’s what caterpillarhood must feel like. I studied Purple Emperor larvae for eleven long years, not under artificial lab conditions but out there in the real world. Most of them get crunched (never give them names, that’s fatal). It’s almost impossible to tell who’s doing the crunching, apart from during the five-month long winter hibernation period when tits are major predators. Pupation is a nightmare, and a lot of pupae vanish (squirrels? Dormice?).

The few that fly deserve the great time they clearly have, and they relish every second. They’re Emperors, and they know it.

This is a good news story. This giant of a butterfly is on the march, infilling within its core range and moving north. But that spread is getting confused by our new-found ability to look for it. Above all, it doesn’t need great conservation effort, let alone ancient woodland: it just needs sallow (‘pussy willow’) bushes, as many as we can spare, almost anywhere. It is fulfilling my wildest dreams.

Follow your own dream, all the way.

Matthew Oates


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