The Butterfly Isles is a tribute to the butterflies of the United Kingdom, or possibly the full list of British species. I thought it was a suitable book to review in honour of the Coronation of King Charles III. He is, after all, a well-known supporter of wildlife, even if he has to hand over the baton of speaking out on environmental subjects to his son Prince William, now Prince of Wales.

Along with several million other people around the world, I will be watching the ceremony on television, or rather, livestream on my iPad. How life has changed since the coronation of his mother!

I have not met, although I have been in the presence of our King and the Queen Consort, at a concert given in a church in Old Hunstanton. It was a fund-raiser for historic churches. Since I sat behind the royal couple, albeit behind a fretwork screen, I was very close! I have been in the presence of the Princess Royal several times – alongside horses, mainly.

However, I have met the author of today’s book, Patrick Barkham, a celebrated natural history author. He did a nature writing workshop for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival one year, at Holkham, on the north coast. I can remember being there, I can remember the walk we took, and the gathering in Holkham House after, but I cannot remember Mr Barkham’s advice and guidance. Mark Cocker’s workshop was the day before, and I remember a great deal about that one, including studying a tree for several minutes to get ideas for a short piece we read out to each other later. Is one just more outgoing than the other? Possibly. I blogged about the events here.

The Butterfly Isles

by Patrick Barkham

So singular are the habits of our 59 species of butterfly that trying to find them can be difficult. Some live virtually unseen in Scottish bogs, others, such as the rarely spotted black hairstreak, never stray from the same tiny patch of land, while many more require certain exact temperatures and climate conditions to take to wing at all. Patrick Barkham recounts the year he spent tracking down as many as he could, from a speckled wood hanging out in a willow tree by the Thames, to a mountain ringlet atop a crag in the Lake District. Illustrated.[goodreads]

This is the 2018 edition, with a preface, revised introduction, and a few corrections to the text. These are mainly related to reclassification of certain butterflies on the British list.

My Review

Like many people, I love to see butterflies wafting about in gardens and meadows, and even trawling the hedgerows for their favourite food. Knowing of the shocking fall in their numbers, I joined the Butterfly Conservation Society last year. I didn’t realise that butterfly people were even more dedicated than the most extreme birders. I prefer to stay in the ‘admirers’ category, and have no intention of making lists. Except in my garden.

Patrick Barkham, on the other hand, reveals that he was brought up to love butterflies. His fondest memories were of summers with his father and his clipboard, walking the countryside, ticking off species. He has a few words to say about the history of ‘butterfly collection.’ I think we all thank the powers that be for changing the word ‘collection’ from the implication of dead animals to photographs and memories.

At some stage of the early 2000s the author moved from reminiscing about seeing butterflies everywhere in his youth, to searching them out, to seeing every butterfly on the British List (59). This is not easy, since some fly in the early part of the year–Brimstones for example. Others finally come out once autumn is already upon us. And as for habitat–most of them are very choosy, which is one reason numbers are plummeting.

hunt for eggs

And after explaining these butterfly facts of life, Mr Barkham starts us on his journey to see them all in one year. Starting with a hunt for butterfly eggs on blackthorn bushes on the boundary of a prison in February. You can feel the cold and damp. You start to get a feel for the single-mindedness of the dedicated butterfly spotter.

Mr Barkham writes beautifully, but very engagingly about his quest. He also includes a map of the country, and sites where he looked for specific butterflies. His adventures are both amusing and painful. His descriptions of scenery vividly bring not only the view into your imagination, but the weather and smells! And the trials and tribulations involved in getting to some of the sites… Butterflies can be found in the most unpromising of areas, provided it has their niche plant, or in the case of the Large Blue, their favourite ant willing to coexist with it in their burrows during the winter. The Large Blue gets a better deal from this than the ants, but the ants reproduce in millions…

I learnt a great deal about butterflies from this book. It is not a substitute for a really good handbook. But it’s more fun for someone like me who wants to know more about butterflies, yet not study them.

And I had twelve butterfly species in my garden last year. 20% of the British species!

The Butterfly Isles | Coronation Special
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5 thoughts on “The Butterfly Isles | Coronation Special

  • 6 May, 2023 at 7:07 am

    An interesting review and I hope you enjoy watching the coronation on your iPad today! You linked today’s events and the book review very cleverly 💜💜

  • 6 May, 2023 at 4:10 pm

    Hope you enjoyed the coronation! And that’s a great selection of the butterflies in your garden. I doubt I have 12 species in mine, but I’ve not yet really looked (and don’t even know how many are possible here).

  • 6 May, 2023 at 7:29 pm

    We also have noted the decrease in butterflies in North Carolina. We have recently planted some butterfly bushes along the edge of the trees below our property. We are the midnight planters..the company that owns the property until they hand over the HOA to us won’t allow us to do anything unless it’s on our patio.

    • 7 May, 2023 at 7:15 am

      The important thing is to maintain the wildflower and shrubs that are your butterflies native food plants. I’ve got an ARCof a book about Milkweed which supports a huge number of N American species. Review in summer, probably 😀

  • 17 May, 2023 at 3:11 pm

    Hi Jemima – what a fascinating book to review – and I note your comments … a book I should remember … and at some stage buy – even if as a present for others. Thank you – and I enjoyed the Coronation though was at a friend’s house fundraising … cheers Hilary

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