There are a handful of days throughout the working year when everything seems to click into place. On such rare days, luck is with you and everything that you wish to achieve goes well…
Alternatively, I have at times been called a “jammy so-and-so”, although I personally like to think you get out of life what you put in. Well, whether you wish to call it luck or “jamminess”, we certainly had bags of it for the Wheatfen Swallowtail Day 2019. This is our biggest event of the year; a chance to showcase the reserve and its fantastic wildlife and history, with the centre piece hopefully being stunning views of the iconic Swallowtail itself.
The week leading up to Swallowtail Day is always a hectic one, with much preparation and obsessive checking of the weather forecast. Anything other than glorious sunshine and these stubborn butterflies refuse to budge from deep within the reedbeds, where they hide up sulking. Showers were originally forecast for Sunday (the day of the event) but as the week trickled by, the predictions of various websites fluctuated, flummoxed by the Great British weather. Rain would undoubtedly be a disaster.
This year the Swallowtail and Birdwing Butterfly Trust launched World Swallowtail Day, an effort to bring together organisations, groups and individuals across the world who have an interest in the Swallowtail family. A great way to celebrate this diverse family of butterflies, whilst highlighting various conservation concerns around some of the species. Our only resident British Species, Papilio machaon britannicus is facing many threats with climate change induced sea level rise, and so the knock-on effect is the potential loss of its habitat and so the loss of the species itself. We were very pleased to have the Swallowtail and Birdwing Butterfly Trust for the event, delivering a series of talks throughout the day. We were also delighted to have Butterfly Conservation with us for the day, with their team of knowledgeable lepidopterist experts. To top it off, Tony Irwin from the Castle Museum brought along a fantastic display of pinned butterflies from the Fountaine-Neime collection.
For one day only, Swallowtail Day, we lead people off the beaten track and onto the fen into prime Swallowtail country. Over the past few years the volunteers have put in endless work turning the tired reedbeds of Home Marsh back into rich fen, promoting the establishment of a wealth of rare fen flowers including the food plant of the Swallowtail caterpillar, Milk Parsley. This hard work has paid off, and the Swallowtails are thriving on Home Marsh. A small path was painstakingly cut into the fen, winding around all manner of different plant species and carefully avoiding rarities. The path circled around an area that has subsequently been named the “Swallowtail Arena”, the focal point for tours on the day.
Saturday came around, and a small army of dedicated volunteers arrived to set up gazebos and prepare for Sunday. Gale force winds swept around the reserve causing the trees to dance and sway violently. Heavy rain showers peppered us constantly as the wildlife of Wheatfen hunkered down finding shelter where it could. I rather optimistically decided that it was not THAT windy in the carpark… the gazebos really needed to go up, as time would be very limited on Sunday morning. Thusly, a bedraggled group of volunteers fought the elements to do my bidding, with many hands clinging on to half erected gazebos that seemed to have a mind of their own as they tried to lift off and fly away. Canvas flapped away merrily, with the wind seemingly laughing in our faces. In the end, two gazebos were erected and secured reasonably well to the ground, with a few miles of rope wrapped over and around and tied to various trees.
Sunday morning dawned and I was on the road by 6am, not wanting to miss my appointment with the bog-brush and two dirty toilets. I was relieved to arrive to the sight of two intact gazebos, still standing upright. Glorious sunshine beamed down on the windswept fen as the battered vegetation picked itself up. Everywhere, the jewels of spent rain drops sparkled and twinkled as the webs of a thousand spiders stretched out across the reedbed, glittering in the sun’s rays. The Reed and Sedge Warblers sang forth in full chorus and even the skulking grasshopper warbler, reinvigorated by the day’s early warmth, churred away merrily. The day was already full of promise, as the latest forecast declared the perfect conditions for Swallowtails. The volunteers arrived en masse, sacrificing their Sunday lay-ins to help out, many bearing a scrumptious variety of homemade cakes and snacks to sell, if I didn’t get to them first. Visitors started to trickle in, with a bubble of excited voices and a general feeling of anticipation drifting intrusively around me. I could almost hear the voice of expectation whispering away in my ear, “so, you think you know where there’s a Swallowtail or two, eh…?”
Kevin (a devoted volunteer) had a cunning plan up his sleeve, certainly not a first for him. This plan came in the shape of a bunch of Sweet Williams, purchased from the local shop and worth every penny. Swallowtails seem to love the scent of these gaudy flowers, and although they look rather out of place on the fen, they do an incredible job of attracting Swallowtails. Within minutes of tying these flashy offerings onto a pole, positioned on the edge of the “arena”, a Swallowtail descended to feed on its nectar. Cameras ranging from professional Canons with 4ft lenses to smartphones were lined up side by side as people snapped away at the obliging butterflies. Throughout the day the Swallowtails were regularly seen drifting to and from the Sweet Williams, in-between their elegant flights over the fen, with smaller males patrolling the area in search of females.
As I flapped about the reserve dashing here and there to ensure everything was running smoothly (of course things were, the volunteers had it all under control), many remarkable stories reached my ears. One lucky bunch had witnessed a lone Swallowtail in the overflow carpark, while another group excitedly described a Swallowtail that had visited Butterfly Conservations tent, show-boating for the crowd. Others had witnessed a Norfolk Hawker dragonfly, a rarity in its own right, grab a Swallowtail in mid-flight, powerfully diving into the reeds with its prey. Many had taken wonderful photos, although there are no prizes for guessing what plant they were photographed on…
As the day drew to a close, the excited chatter of contented visitors faded away as the reserve emptied. It had been an exceptionally successful Swallowtail Day. The butterflies had performed at their best, but I would expect no less after all the hard work we do for them. However, the real stars of the show were the volunteers, tirelessly working throughout the day with passion and big smiles.
The subsequent few days brought torrential rain, similar to that on the Saturday setting up. The beautiful conditions of Swallowtail Day sat betwixt spells of unseasonably wet and chilly weather. Some might say we were very lucky; others would just call me a “jammy so-and-so”.
(Thanks to Phil Beckett for the header image)