Butterfly on the edge – the precarious and beautiful world of the Glanville fritillary by Susy Jones

Several years ago, we accidentally started a tradition.

Since 2012, we’d been gradually working our way around the country spotting all the British species of butterfly. This is by no means something new; there’s even a book written which chronicles one person’s quest across Britain to see each one.

In our case however, it sparked an obsession which would bring us back to the Isle of Wight each May/June, and draw us deep into the intimate world of butterfly behaviour; namely that of the Glanville fritillary.

In the warm sunshine of the middle of the day, the Glanville fritillary can be a frustrating butterfly to photograph. They are busy and pugnacious insects, quick to battle with so much as a fly that dares to buzz too close. On hatching, they set about their business of nectaring, mating and (in the female’s case) egg laying, as soon as their intricately patterned wings are inflated. If you live for no more than a couple of weeks, you’d better get cracking with business, so there’s little time to sit still in the daytime.

This can prove exasperating for the observer or photographer. This frenetic existence is busy and tiring to watch! But we soon realised that we could enter into a more sedate and relaxing side of the life of this fast living creature, by venturing out into its world in the evening – something we hadn’t thought of before, and something we’re not sure many other butterfly enthusiasts do.

Watching grassland butterflies by evening is a world away from the busy, bright buzz of the day. It’s an ethereal, magical and intimate natural history experience. When we head down into the chines of a late May evening, the beaches are quiet, the tourists have headed back to their pubs and hotels, and we feel as though there’s just ourselves with our lepidopteran subjects and the sounds of the waves lapping at the shore.

The pugnacious, bright-orange winged fritillaries of the earlier sunshine are now in what we believe is their most beautiful state – at peaceful roost. Dotted on every other grass head, is a ‘sleeping’ Glanville or two, wings closed, perfectly showcasing the most beautiful underwing of any British butterfly. It’s a crazy-paving style, dotted affair of magnolia, orange, white and black; each individual’s exact pattern is unique, like our fingerprints. Sometimes the black lines are broken, and sometimes the whites more stained with yellow. When you happen upon a patch of ‘sleeping’ Glanvilles in abundance, it’s a glorious spectacle.

Picture the dramatic chine spattered with soft pink thrift, the sun setting over the turquoise sea, and dozens of postage-stamp sized butterflies folded up to roost on the grass stems. This year one evening, I sat down to relax beside the footpath and I began to lose count of them. When they’re at rest like this, you can get up close and personal. You can see every scale and hair, the fluffy fringes on the wings, the banded antennae. The flighty, restless creature of the daytime sun is now face to face with you, unflinching, though it seemed so wary of you earlier. You are surrounded by these pugnacious, tenacious butterflies on the edge, in their peaceful state.

Just be careful not to go off-piste and tread on the young plants of ribwort plantain on which the eggs have just been laid – the Glanville may be tough, but respect for wildlife is paramount and habitat disturbance is an easily avoided problem.

But what does the future hold for this butterfly on the edge, with its precarious existence and concerning conservation status in the UK? No one can really know, though there is much speculation. It seems that the butterfly can be relatively resilient in its final stronghold on the Isle of Wight, often bouncing back from its poorer years, withstanding occasional seemingly disastrous weather events, and colonising new patches of disturbed coast on the island from time to time. But climate change and other pressures could change all this in the future, as is the case with so many species. There is however one thing I can be sure of. In my lifetime I will see this Isle of Wight icon every May for as long as both it – and I – exist.

About the Entry

  • Blogger name | Susy Jones
  • Site name | words from the wild and weird
  • Site URLwww.wordsfromthewildandweird.home.blog
  • Facebook www.facebook.com/susy.jones.18
  • Why should someone visit your site? My blog chronicles my observations and discoveries of the amazing wealth of life found across our coast and countryside. From predatory molluscs and fleeting fungi, to weird woodpeckers and water voles, I find fascination and joy in all forms of life.
  • Entry Number | 21

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