The glade smells of baking ground and dried bracken, cut with the faint sweetness of end-of-year-sale bluebells. Their last few nodding heads are just visible between the unfurling green shepherd’s crooks of new ferns, and the squat purple flowers of bugle. Spindly birches cast ripples of dappled shade across the ground, but in this glade, surrounded on all sides by taller, more mature forest, the heat of this beautifully sunny day is trapped. It is uncomfortably warm.
As I stand and watch, sweat beading on my forehead, I finally spot the movement I have been looking for. It is a butterfly, flying low to the ground, moving unpredictably from spot to spot like a pinball in play. In flight it looks orange, but occasionally it pauses, wings still fluttering, and I can glimpse a spattering of dark brown markings on its upper wings, as if someone has flicked a paintbrush at it. It’s one of our most endangered butterflies, although that is a strongly competed title these days. It’s named after the silver-white patches on its underwings which gleam like pearls when caught in the right light: the pearl-bordered fritillary.
I turn, and see butterfly after butterfly, all in constant motion. Occasionally, just occasionally, one will stop for a few seconds at a bugle flower to fuel up, like a motorway driver grabbing a quick latte, before taking to the air again. It’s a peaceful, bucolic scene, except that it has a darker undertone: every butterfly I can see is male, and their flight is not random. They are following invisible pheromone trails and will investigate anything – a dried bramble leaf gets particular attention – that is the right shade of orange. Such is the competition here that the males hatch first, then spend their time desperately seeking newly hatched females that they can mate with before the female’s wings are dried out and she can fly away. I am witness to an orgy.
In the end the heat is too much, and I move to cooler, shadier woodland nearby. The relentless, desperate males fly on.