Purple Emperors seen on an ancient oak sap bleed. Ashstead Common, Surrey, July 1997


 The following photographs are interesting in the sense they seem to remove the Purple Emperor from nature into a barren, almost frozen land remote from any leafy glade. In some ways it is as if the 19th century German expressionist painter, Caspar David Friedrich with his predilections for icy wilderness, had leant an unseen hand!  If not that perhaps the butterfly photographed after some nuclear apocalypse?

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Jottings from a notebook (Stuart Wise)


14th July 1997 Ashstead Common (& Forest)

 

Eventually found the main Purple Emperor colony. Observed them at rest on the oak leaves, one eventually coming down and alighting, briefly, on fronds of bracken.

 Definitely prefer the top oaks, choosing the most majestic trees. These butterflies have a grandeur about them no other British butterfly possesses. They need space or at least the sensation of place which only the top oaks can provide. They won't be hemmed in. Nor do they have a 'function' scarcely ever alighting on flowers, drinking aphid honey dew instead. A most enigmatic butterfly, one of a number that do not generally pollinate.

Purple Emperor
       Scores of Purple Emperors around top oaks. None came down to puddle.

 Talked to a park ranger - a youth in his 20s on a six month contract.  He was hoping to do an MSC but needed site experience or at least thought it a good idea. Had an ecology degree from Birmingham.

  He thought the staff employed by English Nature had a hard time of it. Much of their work was bureaucratic form filling to justify their existence to the cheque signers in Whitehall. Because it is a conservation body it is difficult to itemize expenditure unlike the Countryside Commission which is about site access - hence can easily show just what the money has been spent on. Previously had worked for Greenpeace.

 Was opposed to aspects of the mechanization of agriculture. Hand mowing of meadows preserved the yellow ant but mechanical mowing would level their ant hills. He wanted to introduce cropping animals into Ashstead because formerly it would have been woodland pasture.

  He reckoned advancement within the conservation movement depended on experience and qualifications. But come a certain point this would act as a break on his present radicalism even though at the moment sympathetic to direct action. He was an employee of the Corporation of London (which owns Ashstead Common) and was at pains to point out that, as he was speaking  in their name, he had to watch what he said.

                          Purple Emperor                                 

       A Purple Emperor briefly floated over our heads to alight on a small oak - sufficient time to take a photograph.

 We spread crushed fruit on the ground and unfurled a bleached white sheet. We thought neither would work but just as we were about to go in late afternoon David disturbed a Purple Emperor  which had alighted on the sheet.

 Having just moved flats I was exhausted and fell asleep on the grass. I also had a bad cold and taken medication. When I awoke it was as in a waking dream. I was relaxed and in a state of joyous communication with nature which took me back to my early teenage years when out butterflying I would also fall asleep and awake to a renewed, beautiful world.

Purple Emperor

 David had been awake all the while watching the Emperors fluttering around the tops of the oaks. He had gone behind an old oak, probably some 600 years old and only just clinging to life. A bramble was growing form its truncated bowl. Suddenly he noticed an Emperor some 10ft off the ground on the bark. It was drinking sap from a bleed. Soon it was joined by another and then another. Even flies were drawn to the bleed. Was this old oak exuding the champagne of saps?

 Uplifted, this rare, chance encounter had something dream-like about it like an incident recounted by L H Newman of a dream that predicted a lepidopterist would find a moth on the next day. Alighting from a train he found the moth just where his dream indicated it would be. L H Newman is one of the few naturalists who would dare mention such an incident. True or false it conjures up the magic that once surrounded the subject. Leaving Ashstead Forest was like walking on air and I just knew the photographs that I had taken could not possibly fail. I have never before experienced anything like this...
                                                     
                                                                  Purple Emperors


Postscript: This was probably the last time Purple Emperors probably ever fed on this sap bleed. The oak was probably in its  early maturity when Shakespeare was at The Globe. Did a Digger or Leveller ever walk by admiring its majestic presence seeing Winstanley's settlement on St George's Hill is no distance away? In the following years even the few final tender oak shoots from the base of the old bole (just how many times had it been struck by lighting') could no longer make it. The bleed seems to have finally dried up. Interestingly, a few years later, a genial warden was to remark how he noticed a Purple Emperor puddling on a diesel oil leak from his tractor noting perhaps the butterfly  was changing its feeding habits!