A Focus On Nature

Species

Silver-Studs: My favourite butterfly of June. By Sophie-May Lewis.

Sophie May has had a passion for the natural world since early childhood. Now a writer and photographer of natural history and countryside subjects, living in a historic market town in the centre of the South Downs National Park, the countryside of West Sussex and surrounding counties provide much inspiration for Sophie May’s work. Sophie May is building a career in Conservation, currently working for the RSPB on a Heritage Lottery Funded Traineeship (ending September 2014), through which she is grateful to be able to share her passion for nature, experiencing wildlife and its conservation, with others. Photographing butterflies and flowers, gardens and animals, landscapes and wildlife, is something Sophie May particularly enjoys, whilst much of her writing is creative, descriptive and poetic, exploring the way words work and sound, and the power of imagery. To read more of Sophie’s writing visit her website (http://www.sophieco.co.uk), or you can follow her on Twitter (@SophiEcoWild).


A glittering haze shimmers over the dry heath. Mid-June and the car radio crackles about heat waves and pollen counts; traffic is zooming past on the main road out of town, everybody in a rush. The car slows and takes a left turn, beside a verge sprayed with pale pink of common spotted orchids. We come to a stop in a small car park. Bracken, birch, bramble, bryony and briar rose jostle for space around the edges of the car park, and between them, over their heads, I can just catch a glimpse of open space and blue skies. We wind our way through the bramble-lined path and emerge into brilliant sunshine, stretched before us is a wide swathe of Lowland Heath. The blue shadowy line of the South Downs rolls comfortingly in the distance. A hawker dragonfly momentarily distracts us, but he is not our quarry, we leave him zooming over his dark peaty pools and head further out onto the heath, following the easy path of a wide firebreak cut through the purple-brown-green tapestry of heather.  Fanned out into the edges of the heath, our steps are slow and careful, heads bowed or scanning the close distance, each lost in his or her own searching thoughts. The sun beats down hard on our backs and the parched sand alike, sending the gorse bushes into a frenzy of machine gun seed pod popping.  Grasshoppers explode from the vegetation at our feet, bouncing off and disappearing into superb camouflage. An impressive green tiger beetle avoids the attentions of the camera lens by taking off in a metallic emerald blur of flight. The scrambling stems of parasitic dodder, spreads as a red net through the heather.

ssb sml 05

© Sophie-May Lewis

Something flickers at the corner of my eye. A hint of blue. I turn and look, but it is lost amongst the heather. Then again, there to my right, a movement. I follow, tracking the flickering flight. Eventually it settles, and with shallow breath and gentle movements I crouch and slide forward over the short mown section of heath it has chosen to perch alongside, and snap a quick photo. “Silver Stud!” I call to my companions, for that indeed is what this precious gem is, our reason for visiting this corner of West Sussex, the silver-studded blue butterfly.

© Sophie-May Lewis

© Sophie-May Lewis

As they arrive, the butterfly takes off, to flutter over the heather again. Another lifts from a hidden perch and they tumble through the air. As our eyes grow accustomed to spotting their shape and colour, we spot another and another around us. They quieten and drop out of view as a cool cloud-shadow passes, and emerge again to dance in the returning sunshine.

© Sophie-May Lewis

© Sophie-May Lewis

Silver studded blues are a heathland specialist and a fussy one too. They are largely sedentary, disliking flying high, and their caterpillars and hence the population as a whole, rely on not only short young heather growth, but also the particular attentions of a species of black ant. The caterpillars fool the ants into caring for them in the safety of their nests as they develop and pupate, and even into escorting the freshly emerged adult into the morning sunshine.

© Sophie-May Lewis

© Sophie-May Lewis

Males are powder blue, edged with white, and shine like jewels as they hunt over the heather for the darker, browner, females. They soon become faded and raggedy, wing-scales knocked off by the rough tough heather stems.

© Sophie-May Lewis

© Sophie-May Lewis

Perhaps due to its fussy nature, perhaps due to our lazy neglectful attitude toward our heathlands in past decades, silver studded blues are one of many butterflies that are struggling to survive in our modern environment. A few pockets of precious, carefully managed, lowland heath in the southern counties of England however, still play host to this butterfly ballet for a few short weeks each sunny June.

I always forget just how tiny these butterflies are; it surprises me every summer. But I do remember the time I first saw them, whilst tagging along on a guided walk on this very same heathland, during a fortnights work experience when I was 15. I was fascinated by these tiny intricate insects with their complex lives, so closely intertwined with our own lives and with our use of their heathland habitat and home. Now, a frightening number of rushing-years later, and I am still drawn to the shimmering heath in mid-June, to that wide firebreak through the purple-brown-green heather, to marvel at dancing blue butterflies.