RICHARD WILLIAMSON Nature Trails...Meadow brown butterfly comes as an early surprise

My weekly butterfly counts which I started in 1976 recorded a big surprise this year.

I could hardly believe the sighting on Kingley Vale of a meadow brown on June 7. Previous first date for this insect was ten days later on June 17.

Then this morning, talking to Sussex Wildlife Trust field officer Mark Monk-Terry, I hear that his first meadow brown was even earlier than mine – May 27, on Levin Down.

Both places are as hot as Hades with their south-facing slopes but even so – the ground was even hotter back in 1976.

The downland had all turned brown by now and there was severe wilting of even the deep rooted plants. But the first meadow brown 35 years ago was June 20.

There was to be another big surprise on my count.

Another butterfly –much rarer than the meadow brown – appeared three weeks early on my count.

This was the dark green fritillary which normally appears at the very earliest on June 24.

I wondered if I was seeing things as this big bouncy bright orange insect leapt up off the grass behind the same bramble bush it has always first appeared from, over the past decades, and shot away at speed.

Could it have been a comma butterfly thought I?

So I sprinted after it, dropping my pen and paperwork to mark the spot and attracting the surprised looks of walkers who perhaps thought I was chasing Dryads. They hadn’t noticed the butterfly and would not have thought it worth chasing anyway.

After a hundred yards or so the insect went down onto a violet leaf, no doubt recalling the friendly cradle smell of its youth on which it had started its life last July as a tiny caterpillar.

Unmistakable cryptic chessboard patterning. Boy oh boy, what a beautiful sight. These dark green frits are becoming more rare by the year and as elusive as Dryads.

Even more surprises this year when I found dozens of dingy skippers where in the past decade there has hardly been one.

This tiny dusky butterfly that looks more like a bluebottle or even a dull clothes moth has thrived wonderfully well in the hot dry spring, giving it millions of little bare earth patches on which it loves to bask and finally nuptialise with its partner.

The warm dry spring this year also gave a long lease of life to grizzled skippers, while green hairstreaks were allowed a much longer flight period than they normally enjoy.

These tiny butterflies are one of the prettiest of all I think, for they look like a small green leaf falling to the ground or being blown about by the wind across the downland turf.

I guess most people just do not know they are there because they blend in with the background like soldiers in camouflage.

If the present early risers have set a trend we can expect the all-time record first emergence time of June 30 for purple emperors to be broken this year.

Set in 1976, that royal emergence then slipped back ever after to the proper time of July 4.

Watch this space; I will let you know if the red carpet had to be rolled out a day early and do let me know if you saw an emperor before June 30.