Today I went to Greenham Common, the former Cold War airbase that was the subject of much controversy in the 1990s when US forces stored nuclear-tipped cruise missiles there. The weapons have long since gone, and after the US withdrew, the base was returned to nature. Where once giant bombers thundered down concrete runways, rare gorse heathland now flourishes, Linnets and Dartford Warblers sing, Adders and Common Lizards bask, and one particular butterfly, the Grayling (no relation to the fish) makes its home.
The Grayling is normally a coastal butterfly these days, and inland populations are rare. It is also one of my personal last 7 UK native butterflies to see. Since I live in North Wiltshire, which is about as far as from the sea as you can get in the UK, finding a population that doesn’t involve a 2-hour drive was most welcome.
I found the Grayling, and it immediately replaced the Adder as winner of my personal best camouflage in a land animal award. It is superbly camouflaged, and as such is relatively happy for you to get close as long as it feels it is well-matched to its background. I found the butterfly at Greenham not by looking for it, but by looking for the colour grey. At one point the runways have given way to patches of heather, and the dried stalks of old heather plants litter the ground. These are a mixture of greys, and it is against these that the Greyling likes to hide. Take a look at the photo below and you’ll see what I mean.
There is actually a Grayling butterfly in this shot. Its towards the top right. You can only see it at all because its wing is damaged and the brown upper side is showing through. The Graylign is a butterfly which almost never shows its upperwing, which is a light brown colour. It has come to rely so strongly on its camouflage that it only ever settles with its wings shut, showing a broken grey pattern.
The Greyling is the only other creature which, like the Adder, I’ve looked at, looked away for a second, and then not been able to see when I looked back again. Several times I thought the butterfly I was watching has flown off, only to realise it was still exactly where I had left it. I was often staring right at it, but could only see it when it moved.
Greenham Common was once home to highly camouflaged bunkers and aircraft. In a sense, the Grayling is carrying that tradition on – albeit on a much, much smaller scale.