Ep. 4 The Cult Butterfly
Purple Emperor Butterflies are little known, and little talked about, but they’ve attracted a cult following thanks to their allusiveness, rarity and iridescent beauty which they flaunt with vanity. In this episode of The Wildlife Community podcast, Helen meets super fan and author, Matthew Oates, in Gloucestershire’s Lower Woods on the hunt for the Purple Emperor Butterfly. A good news story for British wildlife.
“The males have the morals of some of Tolkien’s orcs! You wouldn’t want your sister or daughter to go out with a bloke with the morals of a purple emperor butterfly!” Matthew Oates.
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Meet our guest, Matthew Oates
Matthew Oates is a naturalist and nature writer based in South Gloucestershire. He worked for 40 years as specialist advisor in nature conservation with the National Trust before retiring to write about and study the Purple Emperor. You can follow him on Twitter @MatthewOates76 His book features a forward by Isabella Tree and can be bought from the publishers, Bloomsbury.
How to spot a purple emperor butterfly
Helen and Matthew met in Lower Woods, a woodland area managed by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trusts where one Purple Emperor Butterfly was spotted in 2020! As Matthew says, this is a classic piece of purple emperor habitat which is a seriously unrecorded species. “The techniques for spotting purple emperors are very different to all other butterflies, you have to look up. They’re more like a bird than a butterfly.”
Purple Emperors breed on sallow bushes like pussy willow or goat willow. Sallow is third most important tree for moths in the British isles after birch and oak so they’re incredibly important for biodiversity. Purple emperors only live as butterflies for around two weeks, usually around July time. They are very large butterflies, only the Swallowtail is larger, so they are, as Matthew describes them “a mighty beast”.
“It’s a cult figure butterfly, and not just in the UK. Here we have a strong relationship with beauty and this is a seriously beautiful butterfly. We are attracted to rarity and we like things that are allusive, which explains twitching and bird watching. This is a wow thrill experience butterfly which behaves like no other butterfly so it stimulates the parts of the human brain no other butterfly can do.”
Can I attract Purple Emperor Butterflies into my garden?
Larger gardens will be used by purple emperors, says Matthew “and we do have male territories in larger gardens along forest edges. So if your garden is big enough for one or two goat willow bushes and you’re close to a known habitat then your sallow bushes will get used from time to time in good years, and you are helping the butterfly to move about. It’s similar to having a buddleia bush in your garden for other butterflies.
“My greatest moment in life was a family expedition to Marwell Zoo when I found a caterpillar on a sallow bow overhanging the boardwalk above the leopard enclosure near Winchester. Now if they can do that they can breed in big gardens.”
This is the area Helen and Matthew are looking up at during the podcast where we talk about a gap between canopies where male purple emperors will wait for females.
What should I do if I spot a Purple Emperor?
The Purple Emperor is a good news butterfly, in that we are not on the point of losing it and we are getting better at looking for it. Matthew says it seems to be increasing within its known range, which is southern, central and south east England. And it is moving north and has recently been rediscovered in east Anglia. “The message is look and though shalt find! The problem we have is that it occurs at a low pop density. The biggest number I have seen in a vista is seven. Eventually I got into double figures in 2018. But this is the problem, it’s a canopy dwelling butterfly, and we see so little of it. Ignore the flowers don’t look on the brambles and thistles but instead look up. The key piece of equipment you need is a pair of binoculars.”