The cover of the book
I was recently given, by my friend Del, a set of Brooke Bond picture cards of British Butterflies dating from 1963. It was a lovely idea and I wondered why I hadn't collected them at the time - I think I was more interested in trains. I found it fascinating to compare the text with the situation today.
The introduction begins: "The butterflies of the British Isles are slowly decreasing in number and variety, mainly owing to the widespread and often pointless use of chemical sprays ..." So you might think that not much has changed in the last fifty years. However, the next page and half are devoted to butterfly collecting and describe the use of nets, killing bottles and setting boards and pins! So that is one area where attitudes have changed dramatically in the last 50 years.
One slight surprise was the inclusion of the Large Tortoiseshell, described as "once fairly common", but "now found but rarely". The current assessment would be that it is extinct as a breeding species, although one or two vagrants are spotted each year.
The Large Blue is described as being "found only in the South West of England, mainly in Devon and Cornwall". It had become extinct by 1979 as a result of agricultural changes: according to Jeremy Thomas (The butterflies of Britain and Ireland) many sites were simply ploughed and seeded, while others were abandoned and became unsuitable once the rabbit population was dramatically reduced by mixomatosis in the 1950s. It was of course reintroduced in the 1980s and now can be found at a number of sites in Somerset and the West Country.
On the other hand, the Comma is described as "a rare butterfly found locally in the south of England". It is now common and extending its range northwards. Interestingly, experts do not really know what has accounted for the Comma's expansion in numbers and territory, although climate change is thought to be playing a part now.
Finally, the Red Admiral is described as "one of our most common and most beautiful butterflies" and this is certainly a judgement which remains unchanged, even if the Peacock has been voted the most popular in recent years.
Del also gave me sets of butterfly cards for North America and the World. I don't know enough to offer a commentary on these, but they were very timely as I find myself becoming ever more fascinated by butterflies and keen to see as many species as possible (my life list currently stands at a very modest 145).