Thoughts On The Most Unusual Grayling Colony In The UK


Grayling Horbury

Grayling in front of EWS wagons at Healey Mills, Horbury August 2003. (These photographs were taken quite close to the new build desolation of the Horbury Green, Barretts Estate fronting Storrs Hill Rd).


Dear Sam Ellis, (Butterfly Conservation Officer, northern England)

 Most likely you will have heard of the substantial Grayling colony that my brother and I discovered last year (2003) in a run down marshalling yard in Horbury near Wakefield. We were doubly delighted because some 200yds away up from the yards is a disused quarry Storrs Hill and it was here around the sage of 10 that our interest in butterflies and moths was first sparked. The quarry is now home to a small Grayling colony.

 We have not been able to determine the size of the colony in Horbury nor its extent though it must number several hundreds. During August 2004, I spent an entire Sunday afternoon criss-crossing the yards going up and down the lines of stationary wagons and silent engines in the baking heat trying to find out more. Though trains from Wakefield to Huddersfield pass through the yard, on this particular Sunday nothing moved in the yard and it appeared to be completely deserted. However it was still a nerve wracking experience, and I was constantly on the look out for transport police, expecting any moment to be hauled off and made to give an account of my behaviour in court the next day before being dismissed with a £1000 fine. This gives some idea of the difficulties facing anyone intent on making a close study of what must be the most remarkable Grayling colony in the country.

 Enclosed is a copy of a cutting from the Northern Echo sent to me by one of my elder brothers. You may have seen it already.  I had thought that the Grayling could be found in the Haverton Hill yards and not just on the coastal flats around Greatham. Though it is over 20 years since I last passed through Haverton Hill, I do recall that it was an immense marshalling yards and that some of it must now have fallen into disuse, seeing that road haulage is still a clear favourite over rail transport. I imagine that some of it must now resemble the Horbury yards with ribbons of sparse grass here and there, a scattering of silver birches, buddleia, thistles and the odd bramble sucker poking through the ballast and even twining around the rusting railway lines. Parts of Leeds railway sidings are like this and also Doncaster. The same may be true of York and Darlington. I always keep a look out for an abandoned truck and an old wooden guards van that can be seen from the train windows in the former sidings. They are now mantled by vegetation and probably it is no longer possible to move them, so they are left to the invading greenery. To me this natural adornment has become a symbol of hope that sites of industrial dereliction, if left to themselves, can produce marvels of interest that are both eye-catching and unexpectedly rich in wild life, exceeding by far anything we could have ever imagined.

Would I be right in thinking that the Grayling is to be found in the Haverton Hill sidings as well as on Greatham marshes? And if so has anyone taken a good look at the colony even though it could mean a wrenching fine? I would be interested to compare notes as I have taken several 120mm as well as 35mm film roles and also video footage. Some of the most interesting shots like those of the Grayling nectaring on Buddleia and heather (which some authoritative text books claim they don't do) and puddling after a downpour, I have transferred to a memory card so they can be printed out as stills.

We had a good look around other sites not far from the Horbury goods yard to ascertain if there were other colonies in the area. However we drew a blank every time despite, earlier in the year, convincing ourselves we were bound to find it at very promising sites like Woolley between Wakefield and Barnsley on the site of a former colliery. Here the spoil heap comes down to the line side with much of the disused part of the railtracks now covered in the yellowing sparse grass that the Grayling finds so conducive on these former industrial locations. We also hoped to find it around Ravensthorpe railway station between Dewsbury and Huddersfield. The station is situated at the apex of a triangle of elevated railway track (one vector is now torn up but the original ballast is still bare of vegetation) and on the railway embankments that slope away on all sides, a choice Grayling grass, the sheeps fescue, abounds. In between, and situated forty feet below the Leeds /Huddersfield /Wakefield/Huddersfield line, there is a large landfill site owned by Demtex, surrounded by a perimeter of undisturbed clay banks partially covered in butterbur, dog daisies, scrawny grass and so on, which would also suit the Grayling.  However after barely a minute we were unceremoniously escorted off the land fill site for 'safety reasons' so we were unable to do a proper survey. Our unshakeable certainties of just two months ago had been well and truly dashed but as field naturalists we long ago learned how to turn our failure into a chastened success, by asking why our expectations had been so cruelly mocked. And the answers we came up with only underlines the folly of ever daring to anticipate natures moves. At the beginning of summer we were certain the butterfly was following the railway lines, establishing colonies wherever the habitat was suitable and all that remained for us to do was find them! Now we had to at least consider the bizarre suggestion that the butterfly might have hitched a lift into the Horbury goods yard.

So we are at a loss to explain how the Grayling got to Horbury.  Is it possible that the insect may have been inadvertently trucked in by rail, hidden amongst the piles of sand and gravel coming from the quarries around Morecombe Bay and even from Scotland? I noticed that in the Heath/Emmett book the 'Scota' form has a minute eyespot missing from its lower underwing. Whether this is a distinguishing characteristic of the 'Scota' form I cannot say. But I did notice that some of the Grayling in Horbury goods yard also lacked the faint eyespots on the lower underwing.

The West Yorks Grayling was first found on Storrs Hill and we automatically assumed that the Horbury goods yard colony must have originated from here especially as there was a small colony in a disused quarry at Worsborough just south of Barnsley some eight to ten miles away. On the contrary we now think the reverse is just as likely that the insects has flown up the hill from the yards to  the disused Storrs Hill quarry. We were also perplexed at not finding  the butterfly at Forge Lane, a railway siding and repair shop, a mile or so distant from the Horbury yards. The environment is perfectly suited to the insect and we can only think it has still to arrive there. This would give us some indication as to how long it has been in the goods yard, and also provide hope that the Grayling may be on the brink of an unprecedented expansion in West Yorks. And this means we must do everything in our power to protect potential sites like Woodhall Quarries on the outskirts of Bradford, mortally threatened by landfill and a moronic, unspeakably selfish, space eating golf club. With so many assholes who needs another hole anyway?

 I have never paid close attention to the behaviour of the Grayling before but now I am alert to its every move. I think it is important to pool information on its behaviour and to establish if this noticeably differs in its new habitats like Horbury goods yard and Haverton Hill. This does require painstaking observation and the patient cataloguing of details, no matter how trivial. I did notice, for instance, that the females were more visible than the males and behaved in an almost territorial way, transcribing broad irregular circles before more or less returning eventually to their point of departure. As general rule female butterflies are less visible than males but in truth I saw far fewer male Graylings and, though from a distance, they can be mistaken for a male Meadow Brown, their powerful flight and different demeanour is a give-away. I would have liked to have watched a Grayling egg laying because this would have given me some idea which areas of the goods yard were favoured for that purpose by the females. But I never saw one go anywhere near a promising blade of grass, though to my consternation they could be seen contentedly lounging amongst the bleached tussocks of dead grass which had fallen victim to a general purpose herbicide some while ago. And it is possible the females were egg laying without my knowing it, taking them to be merely basking in the sun, If so they were depositing their eggs very low down on stunted grasses and maybe even on the ground at the base of grass stalks. Around 17.30 one evening we did disturb a number that appeared to be roosting in the dense, verdant grass (verdant that is when compared with the generally desiccated grass elsewhere in the yard ) in the shade of a row of trees that divides a housing estate from the yards. This was on the other side of the bridge on Storrs Hill Rd that spans the yards. Here on the approach to where the old Horbury for Ossett station once stood, the yards start to narrow before entering a steep sided, though fairly wide, cutting that eventually comes out at the Forge Lane sidings. Significantly we only spotted these Graylings on retracing our steps, our attention being solely directed to the merest flicker of movement on the railway lines either close to, in the middle distance, or way over on the other side.

At rest the Grayling is a miracle of concealment. Richard South spoke of the great butterfly disappearing trick and if a person averts their gaze for a mere second, say to adjust a camera, the butterfly is lost to view. There is no substitute for actual experience, and time and again I have convinced myself the butterfly must have flown off whilst I was busy fiddling, only to disturb it when I put my foot forward. Seeing the Grayling passes so much of its life in this state of cryptic concealment it seems only logical the female should make use of this astonishing disguise when egg laying. That its only use is as an aid to lounging about or reducing the chances of being disturbed when mating does seem rather restrictive.

 Whenever Graylings cling to a buddleia blossom, a stem of heather or a thistle, the upperside wing with the visible eyespot was exposed and not tucked beneath the hindwing, like when it is resting on the ground  I thought this must be part of the butterfly's habitual physiology when hanging vertically from a stalk, until I saw one rest on a head of dead flowers. Its top wing instantly dropped beneath its lower and was as undetectable as on the ground.  Graylings are not an easily disturbed butterfly and you have to practically tread on their tails before they fly up.

 Much of the day is passed basking in the sun. Timing the intervals spent at rest I reckoned on average the Grayling spends between five and eight minutes before flitting off to another nearby spot. However I did wonder how much my presence influenced this pattern of behaviour. I was anxious to visit other parts of the yard before it got too late in the day and my barely concealed impatience may have been enough to unsettle the butterfly. I did notice how much of the time the butterfly's upper wing was raised displaying the bright orange eyespot. Sensing the nearness of a potentially hostile presence, it was a clear sign the butterfly was not comfortable.

 Their normally unflappable disposition and the time the Grayling spends dosing on the ground can fill me with temporary dismay. Where ever can they have gone to? Is my estimate of numbers wildly exaggerated' But start one and invariably several others will instantly arise, as if from nowhere. On my second day of exploration in early August 2003 this happened in widely separated parts of the yard, enough for me to delightedly exclaim 'they are everywhere' only to be puzzled by their absence on retracing my steps. When making a rough estimate of numbers it as well to bear this in mind.

 Seeing most butterflies I disturbed were females any mid-flight interception was spurred on more by curiosity than the usual territorial aggression typical of patrolling males. I also noticed this wide sweeping movement could change to an almost purposeful arrow-like flight where the butterfly appeared to be following the railway lines on either side, like lights on an airport runway. It occurred to me that railway lines may be an aid to dispersion in some, as yet, unrecognised way. The Graylings would also fly up and down the lines of trucks dodging in between the coupled wagons only to quickly reappear, though they were quite capable of flying right over them and the motionless, silent, diesel locomotives, if they chose to. I would love to  take shots of them doing this on a field camera and then enlarge from the negatives to the size necessary to show this.

 However when executing one of their typical wide arcing movements, the circle would temporarily flatten off when the butterfly encountered a row of tallish birch trees. But rather than fly through or even probe a gap in the trees, the Grayling would tend to soar up and over the trees. The minor ecological barriers presented by the rows of trucks and trees and the slightly different responses to them by the Grayling struck me as of some interest. I formed the impression the Grayling likes to fly up embankments and onto railway lines rather than from railway lines up grassy banksides. The fact that sections of track in the yards are raised seems to appeal to the Grayling - yet another reason why I think a colony will, in time, be established at nearby Ravensthorpe. I did not see one Grayling on the Horbury perimeter of the yard until I reached the gate at the end of the path from Horbury where the land falls away and the railway embankment appears to rise. Here Graylings can be found on most days basking on the path and on the hardcore covering the railway embankment. It was here we got photos of mating Graylings on a concrete post and of the Grayling resting on a dead flower head mentioned previously.

 This antipathy to railway cuttings - the almost claustrophobic absence of bare wastes, even in quite broad cuttings like that between Horbury and Forge Lane through which several lines run with a strip of grass and silver birch saplings right down the centre - may explain why the Grayling has not yet travelled the mile of track separating the two places.

              Anyhow these are just some of my observations that I hope to enlarge on as time goes by.

Stuart Wise

PS: I wrote the above some while ago and I have, in the meantime, read Niko Tinbergen's 'Curious Naturalists'. Though still very much in the process of absorbing it, there is a chapter in the book dedicated solely to the Grayling.

   I am now wondering if it is permissible to treat Niko's observations as characteristic of the Grayling in its more typical habitats - downland, sandunes, coastal areas etc.
 If my initial observations of the Grayling in the Healey Mills yards turn out to have a measure of accuracy, then it does suggest there is a degree of behavioural divergence from the norm. For example this year I, and my brother, saw several mating pairs but we never party to the pre-nuptial ritual Niko describes. He notes how they 'flew up in response to all females and only found out later whether a female would respond or not'. On the dunes of the Zuider Zee the males 'took up regular observation posts, either on bleeding trees or elsewhere, but always on or very little above the ground'. There is a need to identify precisely what these observation posts are in the Yards. Did for instance the habit of resting on railway lines constitute an observation post? Did male Graylings even use the stationary wagons for that purpose? All I can say for sure is that I never saw one ever rest on the trunk of a birch tree. Besides which, the diameter of the birch saplings out in the fairway, where the majority of the Graylings were to be found, was hardly ever in excess of 10mm.

 I have also included a page of jottings which, if not immediately relevant to the issues addressed here, give an indication of the chaotic thoughts going through my mind when I first saw the Grayling in yards I used to muck about in as a pre-teen.

Healey Mills
Still from a DV footage. Apart from the act of mating, the Grayling never opens wings except perhaps in the moment of flight in an intensely hot location. This one did at Healey Mills, August 2004. Grayling on a rusted railway line on the scrub fringes of Healey Mills marshalling yards, West Yorks in early August 2003.

Note, amongst other things, on Niko Tinbergen

Niko Tinbergen investigated the Grayling for several summers in the 1930s on the sand dunes of the Zuider Zee. His essay on the Grayling became a classic of animal behaviour. I did wonder what Niko would have made of Healey Mills Marshalling Yards especially as the females appeared to outweigh the males  with the females flaunting themselves and the males in purdah. If I were to repeat Niko's experiment instead of dangling mock-ups of females from wooden poles I would have had to construct cardboard cut-outs of males. And rather than peering around the pine trees as did Niko's students, I would be using stationary rolling stock for cover; one eye cocked for the Grayling the other for the boys in blue - the Transport Police.

Niko was a great behavioural field naturalist and his method was to first observe the animal and then, if necessary, identify it. He certainly did not carry around in his head an inventory of species. Though good at spotting birds when he first set foot on the dunes of Hulshorst he was a very amateur entomologist.

He describes with child like enthusiasm how his eye was caught by what looked like 'a jam loving wasp.' And like a child his first response was to observe the insect rather than identify it, knowing only it was a digger wasp. As he said 'exactly which insect I did not know yet, but that could not be difficult to find out.' And whilst studying the Philanthon Triangulum he became interested in another wasp called Ammophila and almost by chance in a butterfly he called the 'bark with wings' (i.e. the Grayling). The aptness of the description, the free play of metaphor recalling the naming of the species by country folk, he retained for the title of his great essay.

His description of the Grayling's disappearing trick has not been bettered ' 'a small part of the tree's bark detached itself from the tree, shot through the air towards the butterfly (a Camberwell Beauty), whirled around it for a few seconds, then abandoned it again, and dropped to the ground, where it vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. Cautiously approaching the spot where I had seen it hit the ground, I failed to see anything until a small piece of dirt leapt into the air and dashed past me, back to the tree, where it disappeared at once reaching the bark. This was a Grayling butterfly, or 'bark with wings' as we called it'.

 This was also my experience though the setting of the goods yard could hardly be more different. The butterfly performed its fabulous disappearing act on railway sleepers, oozing tar not sap, and on hardcore mixed with coal and clinker from long gone blast furnaces. And if the Grayling landed on an upright it was never that of a tree trunk, even though there were plenty of young birch trees, but on the rusting lever of a manually operated points system or a concrete post. There was one feature I did note and which differed somewhat from Niko's account. On hot days whenever the Grayling settled on, or close to, the steel cradles supporting the railway lines, it would make for the shade, crawling as much as a foot easily before settling down. Compare this with what Niko has to say: 'The Grayling's movement showed the same specializations that many other camouflaged animals have: they either flew, and flew fast, or were completely motionless'. This behavioural modification I witnessed must be due to the heat absorbent qualities of metal and which, once scorched by the sun, was even too much for this sun-loving butterfly.

 I have been pressed on two occasions to at least try and enumerate the behavioural differences. I was rather reluctant to do this as I felt the person was pushing me into saying the environment was perfectly adapted to the butterfly's needs and, if not, the butterfly was demonstrating emergent possibilities and that it was now poised to enter unfamiliar worlds and inhabit new terrains like Oxford Street or The Headrow in Leeds. To me this departure from 'nature'- however one cares to define it - was alarming, suggesting an infinite malleability belonging more to the realm of sci-fi or to the art of digitised manipulation and untruth much favoured by the spin-doctors of nature representation.

 True, this year (2004) I did find it in the most unpropitious of places, resting on the gleaming polished steel of the railway lines in regular use and bolstered by fresh hardcore on which not even a desiccated blade of grass flourished. But, it must be continually stressed, in much smaller numbers than on the rust-eaten lines of the sidings that have fallen into disuse and which have a flora all of its own. Here the various stages of succession can be read off, going from the odd bramble sapling and pineapple plant on the mounds of bare hard core, to the moss, scant grass and occasional thistle to, finally, a veritable carpet of trefoil shaded by groves of birch and sallow. To be sure Healey Mills is a new terrain, and a very exciting one at that, but it is also, at the same time, sufficiently old. That said the Grayling is, however, doing far better here than in the disused quarry of Storrs Hill that overlooks the yards. It is well known the Grayling is fond of abandoned quarries yet despite walking through the quarry three times this year; I only fleetingly caught sight of one Grayling.

 Seeing the Grayling in the setting of the yards was a strange experience, about the strangest I have ever known. I look at the photos I took. They are odd, some very odd and there may be even odder ones to come. But there is not a pixel of untruth in any of them. Once they would have caused astonishment but now such photos are bordering on the banal, barely worth a second glance. Though genuine images, they are devalued by the increased flow of bizarre imagery typical of our time. Are they of a butterfly or are they an advertisement for a butterfly in which every unlikely combination is permissible? This was brought home to me just the other day when, travelling on the London Underground, I noticed some giant posters of Zebras in a snow covered landscape as part of London Underground's 'Platform for Art'. I even went back to the tube station to take a closer look. They could have passed for real, the digitised chicanery was that good. But had these Zebras been moving, it would have been a different story, and this pathetic fiction of Zebras on an Artic savannah instantly exposed as a fake.

 For virtual reality remains frozen in time, like a still photo. It cannot as yet turn the world into a televisual plasma panel in which a growing portion of reality, beginning with the built environment, is a proxy for a screen that continuously projects a substitute reality that is more real, because more pervasive, than actual reality. But that is the ultimate aim and nature, in the process, will become ever more schizophrenic. 

 On the one hand we will be urged to create our own parallel nature, an electronic equivalent (that shortly will merely require a sensor and then, finally, even a thought will do the trick) of that supernature that lay behind Goethe's romantic megalomania at having invented a plant 'nature herself will be jealous of. After this model it will be possible to invent plants ad infinitum {that} could exist even if they have no actual existence-----etc'. Yet when 'The Metamorphoses of Plants' appeared three years later in 1790 it was a surprisingly sober and revolutionary scientific work that, in some respects, anticipated Darwin. 'Reality' had meanwhile intervened, even if that reality was then difficult to accept, because of its evolutionary implications - for example - a stamen is a contracted petal - and in the instance of the carnation, sepals merge with petals and in the corolla there is an identical transformation of filament, anther and stamen. However, on the other hand, reality, in the sense of something outside our traduced imaginations, will, in the future, be ever less permissible, because it would reveal a rapidly dwindling diversity of life.

Based on a growing absence of real life, the aim is to make each of us the author of ourselves in a fictional, self-created universe. We will be our own freely chosen narrative that will have a beginning, a middle and an end - that of our own imaginary life. That at least is the ideology. But like all ideologies it is a belief system and depends on the believer never finding out the truth. And as reality, which includes the destruction of the natural world, becomes more burdensome and inescapable, it will be ever harder to convince a person otherwise.

 How different were the home-spun, natural narratives that Fabre dressed his tales of insects in and which inescapably influenced Niko whose style of presentation was, however, more detached. We have come a long way from when I first saw the Grayling in the yards but all these thoughts were crowding in on me in a kind of leapfrogging madness of recollection and reflection, for I knew these yards as a pre-teen. What I was observing was extraordinary by any standard and seemed, at the same time, to be pointing to a future of unmanageable and increasing contradictions. I was even convinced I was able to make sense of a passage in Lautreamont when, encountering a huge spider, he appears to suggest natural history is becoming absorbed by narrative fiction and that natural history is in great danger of losing its objectivity. Only for the briefest moment is he able to say 'we are not now in the narrative' before it, too, succumbs to the phantastical. If so, it was a brilliant prediction, and I have long felt 'The Songs of Maldoror' should be read side by side with Darwin's 'Origin of the Species'. Darwin's book preceded Lautremont's by two years but the influence of Darwin is very evident. I think it is about time the situation was reversed and that ultra-Darwinists take a long, hard look at Lautreamont. Mr Dawkins, please note! For had you understood Lautreamont properly, the simplistic separation of art from science you fall prey to in 'Unweaving the Rainbow', would not have been tenable.

I even thought of writing a highly personal, potted history of entomology leaving its pre-history to one side (the keeping of honey bees, the farming of silk worms, plagues of locust etc) and concentrating on its modern founders in the 17th Century - Malpighi, Leewenhoek, Hooke, Moffat, Ray, and Swammerdam mainly. The last named was to be given pride of place because I see his fits of depression and cranky religiosity, combined with the greatest care over details of insect microanatomy, as typifying much of the history of entomology as a modern science. The balance of Renaissance man is a thing of the past, and until the advent of applied entomology, tied as it is to industrial agriculture and preventative medicine, the entomologist is a marginal figure. Consequently, beneath the surface, there are always intimations of a wider alienation from society, as then constituted, which needs to be brought out.

                                       Stuart Wise. November 29th 2004




Butterflies Butterflies Butterflies

Brown Argus, Kiveton.
3rd August 2003   

Brown Argus, Kiveton.
3rd August 2003
Vapourer, Horbury
August 1st 2003
Butterflies  Butterflies  Butterflies
Grayling. Horbury
August 1st 2003
Grayling. Horbury
August 1st 2003
Horbury Marshalling Yards
August 1st 2003
Butterflies  Butterflies  Butterflies
Grayling on ballast.
August 2nd 2003
Grayling on ballast.
August 2nd 2003
Grayling on concrete.
August 2nd 2003 


Healey Mills

A Grayling camouflaged amongst railway ballast at Healey Mills Marshalling Yards, Horbury, West Yorks. August 2nd 2003.

Grayling Wath

Only a few years ago, this was the site of the huge, bustling, Wath-On-Dearne, Marshalling Yards South Yorks. Now with the 'end' of the coal industry, it is a piece of glorious waste land awaiting a prospective buyer. In 2002, Graylings were found on a nearby quarry at Worsborough, Barnsley. Were they not like Storrs Hill, Horbury, merely the side-show for the serious colonisation of half-abandoned, huge railway  sidings before the ransacking of the coal industry?