Wednesday, 12 July 2017

In search of the Purple Emperor

Last week, on another blisteringly hot day, off we went to Knepp Castle, 8 miles from Old Copse, for a Purple Emperor Safari.

Knepp Castle is a 3,500 acre estate which the owners have been 're-wilding' from unproductive farmland since 2001. They are working with natural processes and have introduced Tamworth pigs, deer and longhorn cattle which roam across the estate.

Neil Hulme, Safari Leader and butterfly expert pointing out the goat willow (sallow), and what happens to former fields when left to their own devices 

Surrounded by willow scrub

We were hoping to spot a few Purple Emperors, and to learn more about their habitat at Knepp, so that we can do everything we can to encourage the butterflies into Old Copse, part of which was known to be a breeding site for them.  After the fields at  Knepp were left uncultivated, and the land was no longer subject to  herbicides, and fertilisers, goat willow scrub grew in abundance.  This clearly pleased the butterflies, which arrived  in large, and ever increasing numbers, much to the astonishment of  owners, workers, and naturalists, who had previously assumed that the Purple Emperor was a woodland butterfly. The Purple Emperor colony at Knepp is now the largest in the UK.

We had hoped to see the butterflies as they settled on the ground, where we could see their famous purple markings close up, but were told that they very rarely come down from the tree tops.  We soon found how difficult it was to firstly, spot them, and even more difficult, to take a photograph.

Luckily, one of the safari leaders had an excellent scope so we could see the butterflies in closeup....

There they are.......oh  missed them..........again

Purple emperor behaviour: thugs of the butterfly world, they will attack and see off creatures much larger than themselves, including birds and dragonflies. Lurking in the top of an oak waiting for something to invade their territory they will shoot out and scare them away. Often drunk on fermented oak sap, they also like to fight among themselves and will swoop and wheel in a distinctive movement, swooping and swerving at an astonishing speed........

See those blurry spots at either side of the picture? Purple Emperors on the attack

A female with her wings firmly closed
It's up there somewhere

They perch on leaves at the edge of a gap in the canopy - waiting to go on the attack

Zoom in (same photo) - that blur is a purple emperor

Purple Emperor egg on willow leaf (somewhat blurred)
At Old Copse we have worked hard to provide a space to welcome the Purple Emperor  but we don't have 3,500 acres to grow sallow in . This felt a little disheartening until Neil said that we probably do have the butterfly in the wood, though not in the large numbers to be found at Knepp, and advised us to put time aside to really look for them in the trees during their short summer season. Sallow does regenerate naturally, although most of the new shoots get munched by the deer. Also, we shall be thinking about planting a lot more sallow at Old Copse.

Neil has a starring role in a BBC Countryfile programme on the purple emperor. Watch here from c 47 mins in,

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