Wednesday 25 June 2014

Swallowtail Butterflies.

"Papilio Machaon Britannicus" is the posh name for a magnificent species of Butterfly, more commonly known as "Swallowtails".
From late May to early July these large, beautiful insects take to the air and fly strongly over the Norfolk reed beds.

We took our cameras to How Hill near Ludham in search of these fascinating creatures.  Through two of the hottest days of the year we waited, in company with other enthusiasts, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive "Swallowtail".

"Swallowtail Butterfly" (Photo courtesy Tony Hisgett)

The British "Swallowtail" is a rare sub species that is only found in and around the Norfolk broads.
For five short weeks in summer the "Swallowtails" emerge, mate and lay their eggs on stems of Milk-parsley (Marsh Hog's Fennel).

Milk-parsley, a distant relative of the humble Parsnip, is the key to the "Swallowtails" life cycle and ultimate survival.  The plant grows in the Norfolk wetlands and is the essential food plant of the "Swallowtails".

The fragility of the species was dramatically illustrated at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire during the 1950's.  There the wetland habitat was reduced from over 100 hectares to less than ten due to agricultural activity over many years. As the water table dropped scrub land overwhelmed large tracts of the marshes around Wicken Fen.   Slowly the Milk-parsley disappeared and the Cambridgeshire "Swallowtails" became extinct.  Parts of the fens were flooded in an attempt to re-introduce the species  with Norfolk stock.  The project failed as did subsequent attempts leaving the Norfolk Broads as the last outpost for one of Britain's most spectacular butterflies.

For the moment the  Norfolk "Swallowtails" seem to be holding their own and are reasonably safe as long as the Milk-parsley survives.  By mid July most of the eggs have been laid and a few weeks later the caterpillars are soon feeding on their precious food plant.  The young caterpillars are very unspectacular in their appearance, resembling bird droppings to fool would be predators. The caterpillar or larva will moult three times before it pupates.  The adult caterpillar assumes a very colourful striped appearance after it's final moult.  

Caterpillar After 3rd Moult (Courtesy Wikimedia)
The caterpillar's defence against predators is the osmeterium, a horn like organ situated just behind the head.  This is deployed if the larva is threatened, giving off a pungent smell, similar to rotting pineapples.

The Osmerterium (Courtesy  Wikimedia)

In spite of this bizarre deterrent large numbers of larva are taken by birds and spiders long before the they transform into pupa.  Caterpillars that do survive make their way down the stems of reeds or similar plants, camouflaging themselves with green or dark brown colouration to suit their surroundings.  Here they overwinter waiting for the warm summer sun when they will emerge as exotic butterflies.    

"Swallowtail" Pupa (Courtesy Wikimedia)

At How Hill, after many hours of waiting, we were rewarded with several "Swallowtails" fluttering across the meadow and alighting on the thistles to refuel with nectar.  They remained just long enough for us to capture precious seconds of their extravagant display before they made off across the marsh and out of sight.  

The "Swallowtail" is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside act.

"Across my dreams, with nets of wonder
I chase the bright elusive butterfly of love."
                                     Dolly Parton

Monday 16 June 2014

Disappearing Norfolk.

The tide of progress sweeps inexorably across the country, with it come the luxuries and advantages we all enjoy and prize so highly.  Unfortunately these improvements come at a price in the form of change to the places we love. Like every other English county, Norfolk is not exempt from this trend.  Due to this state of affairs I have become a man with a mission - the mission to record as much of disappearing Norfolk as time will allow.

Many years ago in the East end of London I was in conversation with a market trader.
When he learned I was from Norfolk he began speaking very slowly in his native "Cockaneese" so that I might understand everything that was being said to me.  He informed me, with unnecessary and patronising delight, that Norfolk was one hundred miles from London and every mile took you back one year. A form of time travel.

His barbed comments were intended as a joke at my expense.  I looked around the litter-strewn market-place and noted the mangy old mongrel cocking his leg up against a "fruit and veg" stall.  I compared this to the green fields back home stretching out under the big Norfolk sky, and I wondered just how long we must wait for the missionaries to reach our part of the world to save us.

"Street Market" courtesy Stephen McKay

The market trader was right, Norfolk, at that time, had escaped the rigours of rampant progress and  it dawned on me just how lucky we were.  At this exact moment the campaign to plough up the A11 at the Norfolk border earned my everlasting and undying support.

Fast forward forty years and how things have changed. Improved road links and faster trains have brought the long awaited progress to Norfolk and accelerated change to this part of the kingdom.

I cannot imagine how we managed all those years ago without a McDonald's or Witherspoon's.  We had to make do with old coaching inns and village pubs.
For so long we were denied the magical experience of giant supermarkets where customers are processed like peas.  Instead we had to endure the corner shop where the friendly old shopkeeper would ask if your mum's Lumbago was any better or enquire if we were we going on holiday that year.  We exchanged our ancient country lanes for wider roads and dual carriageways.  These enabled  us to dash from one place to another without seeing anything of interest in between and take out large numbers of wildlife while doing so.

The advent of the credit card, a simply wondrous event that allowed us to buy things we did not need and could not afford.  Laptops and mobile phones have acquired the status of an extra limb, giving us rolling news and instant internet access.  Oh for the days when the only tablets needed to sustain life were issued by the family doctor not PC World.

Along with progress came the inevitable interest of property developers, the sprawling acres of Norfolk farmland were ideal for housing developments.  Bricks and tarmac spread across large tracts of the county like a cancer, eating up pastures and woodland, destroying the habitat of the wildlife that was once so abundant in Norfolk.  There are some species of British butterflies and birds that my Great grand children will, in all probability, never see.

"Honey Bee" Courtesy Jon Sullivan

Some species of these seemingly insignificant little creatures like Bull Finches, Bees and Bats are already tottering on the edge of extinction. A casual shrug of our sloping shoulders does not excuse us. We must all take some responsibility for not taking greater care of this little patch of England that was entrusted to our keeping.

Visitors to Norfolk fall in love with our county, most are attracted by the slower pace of life.  As more folk settle here the very things that made this county so attractive and unique are gradually diluted and lost.  Improving road and rail links will only serve to accelerate this process.

The Norfolk of my childhood no longer exists, it has simply melted away, almost unnoticed.  Many might say it is a good thing.  Modern drugs and medicines have increased our chances of a long and healthy life span, far greater than our grandparents could have hoped for.  Better housing,  nutritious food, the benefits are endless.  Alas, for everything gained something is lost, this is the nature of progress.

For just one day I would love to be transported back to my school days. Perch on a farm gate and watch the ploughman pull a furrow. straight as an arrow without the aid of GPS.
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