Search for the emperor

Blog post by Barry Madden on 07 Jul, 2020
Ancient woodland is a rare commodity in this 21st Century world. Even then, its existence is more likely due to circumstantial accident rather than conscious design. We are then rather fortunate, here in Norfolk, to still be able to enjoy some impressive areas of such interesting and captivating habitat. Even though most of these fragments are but a shadow of their former glory, they nonetheless afford us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in their history, wildlife and majesty.

Two purple emperor butterflies, by Barry Madden

Purple hairstreak butterfly, by Barry Madden

I paid a visit with a friend to an exceptionally well managed ancient woodland recently, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve of Foxley Wood, the largest such site in Norfolk. The word ‘managed’ is as relevant today as it always has been in these kinds of habitats. It’s a careful balancing act. The woodland is no longer something that serves as a communal resource, whereby grazing by domestic animals and harvesting of hazel coppice would traditionally create a mosaic of different habitats. Nor do these places any longer exist as a strictly commercial venture, providing, for example, timber for construction, where selective felling would help to keep the woodland open and attractive to a rich understory of plant life. Today nature and biodiversity are the watchwords. Without active management the area would soon become overgrown by a few more dominant species and the wealth of plants, insects, birds and mammals would diminish. And of course, the needs of human visitors must be catered for; a Living Landscape component is just as important for people as for wildlife. Foxley Wood is a prime example of how an ancient woodland site, part of which was felled and replanted with non-native conifers during the early 20th Century, can be essentially reclaimed, allowing natural regeneration to supplement those areas of untouched woodland that remain. It is a simply wonderful place to visit.

On this day, as soon as we step out of the car we are surrounded by butterflies. Even though there is a strong breeze and largely overcast skies, the wide, open rides bordered by sentinel mature oaks provide shelter. The borders of these paths through the wood are just teeming with insect life taking advantage of the profusion of wild flowers that provide colour and sweet scent to a gentle walk. Ringlets, meadow browns, skippers and whites flutter all around; sedentary crickets, ladybirds, spiders and snails require more focussed attention. But we are here in the hope of catching a glimpse of a rather special insect, one that has been absent from the county for nearly 50 years but is now back, the monarch of the oaks, the purple emperor.

Two purple emperor butterflies, by Barry Madden

Two purple emperor butterflies, by Barry Madden

Of course, we are not alone in this quest, several other keen-eyed naturalists are busy craning necks looking at the tops of oak trees for a glimpse of this enigmatic creature. So far nobody had been successful, but everyone has spoken to someone else who has seen them ‘down by the gate’, ‘further along the path’ or more forlornly ‘should have been here last week’. Hope springs eternal in the heart of nature nerds, so undeterred we stroll forth just content with being out in the fresh air. Shortly, whilst pausing to admire a group of bright orange silver-washed fritillaries tempted forth by a short burst of sunshine, we catch a tantalising glimpse of a butterfly flitting around the top of an oak. It lands, but is partially obscured and too far away for positive identification. We can see white markings on the wings, but white admirals frequent the area and this could be one of those. A small crowd gathers, and slowly consensus is reached that this is indeed a purple emperor and probably the best view we are likely to get on such a day. Well, that will do very nicely thank you; indeed, a real bonus because in truth we don’t expect to connect with the emperor today. Quite pleased with our luck, we make our way back to the car park for lunch when a movement on the side of a nearby oak attracts our attention. And there, licking sap from a fissure is not one, but a pair of resplendent and quite beautiful purple emperors. One even opens its wings for a second revealing the deep purple sheen that gives the insect its name. Glory be, how fortunate are we? Big smiles, a Covid-restricted high five, and with a spring in our step a well-earned lunch for two very satisfied youthful minded, if slightly more maturely framed, chaps. What a morning!

Foxley Wood is a credit to NWT, the sense of space produced by the opening up of some of the rides works very well. We encountered more than one family with small children exploring the easily accessible wayside plants for bugs and beetles. An improved path now takes visitors from the car park to the main visitor interpretation point ahead of entering the woodland itself. Permeable improved surfaces are also used at key points in the woodland to encourage people to stay on the paths and to make the wood more accessible. It’s still possible to walk along narrower tracks which perhaps allow for a deeper sense of presence of the woodland all around, but altogether the mix succeeds. And with such stunning wildlife on display who could fail to be happy with a walk through this truly ancient and mystical wonderland.
Barry Madden is an NWT volunteer.
Header image: Purple emperor, by Barry Madden
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