Dorset-based charity, Butterfly Conservation, arranged a tour of Fontmell Down recently. Alfred joined the search for the rare silver spotted skipper and learned why nature lovers had driven over 100 miles to visit this exceptional National Trust site on Shaftesbury’s doorstep.
Butterfly Conservation is based in East Lulworth, but on the hot hazy Saturday morning of the August Bank Holiday, their field trip organiser for Wiltshire, Andy Daws, had risen early for the drive down from Bristol.
Butterfly enthusiasts and countryside lovers who had seen this curated walk advertised were milling about in the Fontmell Down car park. It wasn’t quite 11 o’clock so they adjusted boots and fiddled with water bottles and rucksacks as they waited for announcements.
If Andy had to rank butterfly spotting sites, Fontmell Down would fare well. “It’s quite a good place. Not top of the range but I think it’s probably in the top ten,” said Andy. He rates Bentley Wood in Wiltshire, highest. There you might spot the purple emperor, one of the biggest specimens in the UK. “You can see butterflies anytime of the year if it’s warm enough, but the season usually starts in April, goes to a peak in middle of June and then the number of species tails off,” said Andy. “The silver spotted skipper is a late-emerging butterfly and comes out by the middle of July. It then hangs on until early September.”
Word had travelled – as had the butterfly fans. David Allen and his wife had driven against the Bank Holiday traffic from Torpoint in Cornwall. “This is the nearest silver spotted skipper to Cornwall. I have got an affection for them,” said David, who was returning to the Shaftesbury area.
This wasn’t David’s first visit to this corner of North Dorset. “It is a very good spot but sometimes it’s hard work because of the incline when you’re looking for them – so you’re up and down,” he said.
Andy explained why those in the know had made such long journeys. “Butterflies do have specialised habitats. The silver spotted skipper is a tiny moth-like butterfly. It isn’t found in Devon, so people from that county travel to actually come and find it,” said Andy.
Fontmell Down is an excellent place to spot the silver spotted skipper. “It’s really at the edge of its northern range in Europe. It is a warmth-seeking butterfly and feeds on short grasses that are found on the edge of paths around here. In Europe, where it’s warmer, it is more widespread. We are quite lucky that we actually get to see them, really,” said Andy.
Andy says that climate change is having an impact on butterflies. “Butterfly Conservation has been actively recording since the late 1980s. We can show that some species have moved north. The orange tipped butterfly, which is quite common in the south, wasn’t found in Scotland until the last ten years or so and has been gradually working its way north.”
As we walked, single file, on the footpath separated from the C13 traffic by a hedge, I met Robert Dalziel. He’d driven from Brent Knoll, just south of Weston-Super-Mare. “I’m doing a quest of photographing all of Britain’s butterflies. I need two more to get them all, one of which is the silver spotted skipper,” said Robert. “This is the closest site to where I live.”
Robert has been on this photographic mission for four years. There are 58 species to capture on the UK mainland and he’s travelled widely. “I have been up as far as Glasdrum, near Fort William in Scotland, all the way down to here in Dorset and also in Devon.”
I told him I hoped he’d see it today. I wasn’t alone in that that sentiment. As our group filed through the shaded coppice beyond the road, a couple returning from the downs wished Robert good luck in his quest. “Hopefully I will get that picture. If I don’t then potentially it’s another year of wait before I get the photograph,” Robert said.
If Robert got his photo at Fontmell Down, there would be one remaining butterfly to snap. “The one that’s proving to be the most difficult is the purple emperor. It’s a magnificent butterfly. It’s our second largest. I have spent six efforts at Bentley Wood to try and get pictures of it this year. I’ve seen it but not been able to photograph it,” he said.
When Robert has photographed that, he says he will write up his experiences. He’s enjoyed the challenge. “I guess it’s a good excuse to be out in our environment, in the wilds of the UK, going to fantastic and beautiful places like Fontmell Down. This is an amazing place to come to.”
Robert says he has learnt a lot more about nature during his photography challenge. “They feed on certain things. Caterpillars need certain grasses or flowers. You learn about botany so that you can target the species that you’re after,” he said.
Andy explained that geology determines what insects we see, to some extent. “We have got limestone to chalk downland around here, so that influences the plants that are around here. Things we take for granted are not always found in other parts of the country. Someone would come down from Yorkshire to see marbled whites, which we find very commonly around here.”
Andy says there’s an interesting mix of plants and flowers to see on the downs. “There are some specialities of the south here. My wife found an autumn lady’s tresses, which is one of the British orchid family and one of the last to flower. We’ve got eyebright, which is specialised on chalk and limestone downland, and lots of varieties of thistles. Some of the flowers around here are good nectar plants for insects, including butterflies. It all helps,” said Andy.
As we emerged from the cooling wooded shade into the dazzling sunshine, the vast expanse of smooth downland and the deep combes rolled out in front of us. Our elusive butterfly could be anywhere down there. Robert is convinced that group walks increase the chance of sighting a rarity. “I went to one of the Butterfly Conservation sites looking for a butterfly called the Duke of Burgundy. I searched all over the place but couldn’t find it. As I was coming out, I met a guy coming in with a camera. I asked him where it was. He said, ‘Oh it’s down here’. It was completely different to the place where I thought it was. We found the butterfly within fifteen minutes. They really can be incredibly localised,” said Robert.
As we walked along the top of the ridge, the group quickly dispersed and people spread out on various contours of the slopes, patiently studying the grass at their feet. Within minutes the party was spread thin on the hillside like mountain goats.
Robert headed off and reminded me how to identify the silver spotted skipper. “See the little white marks on the wings,” he said. Andy occasionally shouted out the names of passing butterflies or plants that the party might be interested in. “It delights me to be able to show people something that they have not seen before or be able to point out something that they’ve not known about before. I think it’s really good that people are enjoying themselves.”
Then, just thirty minutes into this four-hour event, the peaceful sound of crickets chirping and the occasional aircraft coming into land at Compton Abbas Enfield was punctuated by a shriek of delight. Robert had seen – and photographed – a silver spotted skipper.
I asked Robert how he felt. “Fantastic! That’s the benefit of coming on a group like this – many eyes see many things,” he said, adding, “Mission achieved. One more butterfly to go, but that will be June or July next year.”
As members of the group continued hunting for their own sighting, I sat down and decided to take a photograph of whatever butterfly landed near me to illustrate my article on the Alfred website. What I thought was an ordinary looking specimen fluttered down near my feet and seemed to be posing for me. I took a snap and continued. A little later I asked Andy to identify what I had photographed.
“That’s one of the silver spotted skippers!” said Andy. I told him I didn’t believe it, realising that I sounded like Victor Meldrew, as the words escaped my mouth. “That is a female,” Andy confirmed.
It was beginners’ luck and I felt guilty that some walkers, who knew what they were looking for and had driven long distances, didn’t spot one. I had travelled three miles and got lucky while bending over to tie my shoelace!
I have driven past Fontmell Down so many times but never considered this beautiful part of the Shaftesbury landscape as a source of as much excitement as I experienced on the butterfly walk. Check out the Butterfly Conservation website. I’d recommend joining them for their next trip.