Green Hairstreaks Take Bradford

The following text may be thought of as disjointed. However, it is deliberately so. We wish to challenge the habitual need to separate things which essentially cannot be separated. We are seeking to revive the viewpoint of a totality which has been lost. This is not merely an epistemological matter or a question of historical totality befitting the professorial backside. The continued survival of the human race now depends on it. We make no apologies for including a lengthy digression on nature photography alongside verbatim notes written up each evening after an exciting day pursuing butterflies. We hope eventually to put the lot together in a publication which will deal, though not exclusively, with the Green and Purple Hairstreak and  the Blue Female of the Common Blue in the Bradford Metropolitan area.

'         Large site (over 500) west of the West Chevin Road from Otley at Brow Gill above Gyll Beck running above the old railway line from Otley to Bradford and Leeds. The butterflies can be found on all  bilberry patches even those practically backing onto the ribbon of housing  along the Bradford Road towards Menston. The actual numbers are rather larger than the 'the big field' on the Chevin. SE 458185. Public access footpath.

'         Green Hairstreaks have now also colonised the large area of bilberry unfolding beneath Surprise View. Although a smaller colony ( somewhere between 100-150 ) given the windswept, exposed nature of the site it is quite remarkable. In 1997, apart from one noted at the top of Miller Lane (situated on the top of the Chevin just before the path ascends to Surprise View) no other Green Hairstreaks were to be seen.  However, we did arrive around 18.00 hours and the sun's rays were weakening. SE 455201.

'         Numbering 100+ on Shipley High Moor, Bradford 16, this is a similar site just above the fields and string of housing known as New Brighton. The site extends to Stoney Ridge just below Stoney Ridge hospital which looks directly across to Cottingley. Across a rather marshy field and on lower ground resides a reasonably sized patch of bilberry which the Green Hairstreak has also colonised next to Stoney Lee school on Cottingley Moor Road. SE 119363. Public access footpath.

'         Smaller site on Fall Top Quarries and Hanging Falls at Clayton. Bradford. 14. As it was late in the day were unable to assess numbers. SE 125312. Public access footpath.

'         Ambler Thorn, Queensbury, Bradford 13. A huge site (1000 plus) on Oats Royd Wildlife Reserve and Lakes. This has been lovingly fashioned from out of the bleak hillsides and spoil heaps of ancient drift mines by John and Pat Steele as an open gate, public access nature reserve. Extends down Moor Lane and Royd Hill to The Gulf and then down the steep hillside to Strines Beck almost  to the Holmfield Industrial Estate and Ovenden, Halifax 3. All of it however, falls within the Bradford Metropolitan District. SE 095298.

'         A small and very exposed site (20+) on the steep bank sides appropriately named  Windy Bank Road running through Catherine Slack to Ambler Thorn in Queensbury, Bradford 13. SE 091293.

'         Holly Bank Bluff towering over Halifax on the Queensbury Heights, Bradford 13. The Green Hairstreak site (numbering about 100-150+) descends down the steep side of Crooked Lane down to the Holmfield Industrial Estate, Halifax 3, where  occasionally, over the factory debris the  green flash of the butterfly can be observed. SE 089289.

        This further review of the elusive activities of the Green Hairstreak in the Bradford area is necessarily conjectural and raises basic questions.  In the absence of reliable records we can't know for sure if the butterfly had begun to colonise the area prior to 1990.  However, it does seem doubtful as the arguments set out below, we hope, will make clear. Prior to 1990, it was more or less assumed that the Green Hairstreak could only be found flying in numbers on 'the big field' on Otley Chevin. Administratively speaking, it is now part of Leeds though formerly, it had long been part of the Bradford Metropolitan District. But what went for the latter, also applied to the whole of West Yorks: the Green Hairstreak was rare. Not perhaps, as scarce as in the 19th century when Porritt had confined it to the neighbourhood of Barden Towers in Wharfedale  though adding that it was a rare event here.

           1997 is more than  an arbitrary  date in the history of the butterfly's recognition. It was an unusually hot spring and to many Lepidopterists in West Yorks, the Green Hairstreak became unmistakably visible. As Susan Stead has suggested, 1997 marked a watershed in the butterfly's presence in the area and a date that is now generally recognised. Over the previous years, hints of the butterfly's presence began to accumulate but in 1997, facts began to outstrip raised hopes (a feature one may say of Lepidoptera in general in the area nowadays). The butterfly increasingly appeared to be everywhere  bilberry, its host food plant, grew profusely or even scantily. Clearly this contradicted the established view. The Green Hairstreak was not on that list of butterflies like the Ringlet, Marbled White, Holly Blue etc and most spectacularly, the Comma that were extending their range by leaps and bounds.

           However, the aforementioned 'established' view still has credence in the south east of England. Here, Green Hairstreak numbers remain relatively static or may be falling somewhat. Even on suitable locations on the chalk soils of the North Downs, the butterfly isn't at all plentiful. At such locations  and where there is an abundance of gorse, the butterfly is not plentiful. A favoured terrain like Banstead Downs on the southern tip of the London borough of Sutton only hosts a relatively sparse population which in terms of numbers compares with a poorly exposed site on the West Yorks Pennines where bilberry only grows fitfully. Although the butterfly in the south east feeds naturally on a number of plants other than gorse (e.g. broome, bramble and bird's foot trefoil etc ), it is altogether more selective in its choice of  terrain showing a much greater preference for a chalk base  as against Wealden and London clays.  Is the take up of calcium in the insects food plant a determining factor here? However, for sure  what appear to be completely suitable environments like Mitcham Common covered in an acre of gorse and copses of hawthorn and fringed by dreary rows of stockbroker, mock Tudor housing, only hosts a miniscule colony of Green Hairstreaks. On the sunniest of days on this clay base one is  hard put to see the butterfly and it will, most assuredly, involve a long search. To talk of the butterfly expanding its range here is really pushing it and must be a rare occurrence.

          This is diametrically opposite to what is happening in the Pennines. The butterfly is truly making great leaps forward here. Sadly, we are never witness to this process and then, all of a sudden, have woken up to the fact, Bradford is all but surrounded in a pincer movement carried out by this welcome green army, only requiring bilberry to make its presence felt. This perfectly camouflaged insect has unbidden, unseen and unrecorded, invaded the high ground of Bradford's seven hills which Frederick Engels memorably likened to those of Rome.

           Interestingly, Susan Stead said that in the mid 1990s she requested a survey to be carried out in the Prince of Wales park in Eldwick above Shipley to ascertain if the Green Hairstreak was breeding on the reasonably sized patch of bilberry on the wild brow of the park. Though the park is perhaps a mile and a half away from Baildon Moor where the butterfly had recently been seen the result was negative. A year later - to be precise  the critical year of 1997 - Susan spotted a lone Green Hairstreak. Over the next three years numbers continued to increase and by the very warm and sunny late spring of 2001 it was obviously a sizable, flourishing colony. Dedicated monitoring has  reaped its rewards providing an invaluable yard stick because Susan's  observations over the years are, as far as we know, the only existing record of an evolving  Green Hairstreak colony in the north of England. It must, to some extent, mirror what is happening elsewhere. The fact that the spring weather between 1997 and 2001 was generally bad makes the continued expansion of the butterfly even more unusual and fascinating. 1998, 1999 and 2001 were mostly cold and wet accompanied by chilly, north westerly winds. The task of finding new colonies and assessing numbers was virtually impossible. Our initial gloomy assessments based partly on a general one, in particular the claim in Ecology and Conservation of Butterflies edited by A.S. Pullin that Green Hairstreak larvae were adversely affected by wet weather, was that numbers had crashed considerably. We thought, inaccurately, that it was bound to take sometime for numbers to recover.

         However, just because we only caught glimpses of the butterfly in brief sunny spells did not mean numbers had drastically fallen.  On the contrary - and Susan's often twice daily visits to her beloved park confirms it - even during  inclement weather the butterfly on the high ground of West Yorks has not merely clung on but actually increased in strength and numbers. Of course, a beautiful late spring like 2001 must work wonders too and one can surmise there will be a similar increase in site numbers like that between 1995-7 if next spring turns out to be kind. There must however, be a limit to a site's carrying capacity and sooner or later numbers will stabilise. But for the moment, the Green Hairstreak is invading this new niche like there was no tomorrow.

          We would go so far as to suggest that the Green Hairstreak has now reached nearly all viable bilberry patches of in the Bradford Metropolitan area. Inevitably, when one comes across a scattering of bilberry plants ever closer to the city centre like, for instance, on Brown Royds Hill over looking Great Horton, the thought occurs, 'is it enough to support a tiny colony'. From mentally logging the existence of acres of bilberry only a couple of years ago, resolving to return at the appropriate time of year, we are now down to pondering the possibilities of the miniscule. This says much for the butterfly's hitherto unsuspected presence in force in the area.

           Nevertheless, two broad based, almost pincer-like movements can be detected, predominately from the south west and the north west. But much still remains to be discovered if a credible causal chain is to be established. The hills between Halifax and Rochdale appear to be almost denuded of bilberry though not the motorway banksides of the M62. And does bilberry peter out in the upper regions of Wharfedale? Yet these two separate strands do appear to have met up in Bradford and are intermingling. However, the insect has not yet surrounded Bradford and unless it is capable of switching to gorse, it will never do so. Though no systematic research has been carried out, the butterfly seems to be absent from the eastern approaches though thickets of gorse abound in wooded areas and on millstone grit escarpments. On the south eastern side - the lee slope of the 'vaccinium edge' - looking for bilberry is nearly as rewarding as searching for a needle in a haystack. However, we did find a handkerchief-sized patch on Odsal golf course.

       As land was taken out of cultivation and quarries fell into disuse, bilberry undoubtedly took root and spread. This, classically, is the case in Shibden Head where both grazing land and the former quarry is now overrun with bilberry. However, early in 2001 while searching for the butterfly we began to find fresh sprigs of the plant in the unlikeliest of places - for instance in the precincts of factories. It caused us to wonder if the plant was also invading new territory foreshadowing the arrival of the Green Hairstreak by a few years.

       In a series of bids to change the perceived image of Bradford, the council a good few years back founded an advertising campaign entitled, 'Bradford: A Surprising Place'. Rather than seek to promo the city's tourist potential with posters of Top Withens, Salts Mill, the Five Rise locks etc, an A1 size reproduction of a Green Hairstreak would have done more to subvert the city's lingering association with thicknesses of soot. No where else in the entire country has a city the size of Bradford played host to the Green Hairstreak to anything like the same degree. It is a remarkable fact just in itself.

       Following on from the 1997 discoveries of the Green Hairstreak we wrote an initial paper which emphasised the amazing amount of variation in wing spotting to be found in West Yorkshire. It was our opinion  that ab: caecus (the one spot) predominated in the vicinity of Halifax/Ripponden and the Ryburn valley  while ab: punctata (with a crescent of spots on both wing undersides) did so in the neighbourhood of Otley. Whether there was a directional tendency to these variations linking up with other areas beyond  (for example, Huddersfield, Oldham, the Derbyshire Dales in the former and Upper Wharfedale in the latter case) remains to be established. We would still more or less subscribe to this division. However, it is in reality  too crude which is why we've emphasised a degree of  intermingling in the Bradford area. Ab: caecus can be found on the Chevin (Otley) and ab: punctata turns up in the direction of Halifax. In both instances though, either variation is easily outnumbered by the other form depending upon geographic position.

        One further comment which may have a bearing on the above. For the first time in the spring of 2001, we noticed ab: caecus variations on the North Downs in Surrey. It may be the case the ab: caecus is winning the battle not only over ab: punctata but even over the typical form. Certainly, observing  the insect on the North Downs over a good number of years, we had not  noticed  the presence of ab: caecus prior to the spring of 2001. In the earlier paper, we came to the conclusion that its host plant bilberry played a part in this and that both variations were more likely to be found in areas where bilberry prevailed. In spite of putting out feelers in the shape of a questionnaire we are still no nearer to resolving the riddle. However, we have a hunch the dominant tendency in the butterfly's present evolutionary state is towards the elimination of spotting. If it wasn't for the tell-tale spotting on the ab: punctata photographed in the Prince of Wales park in Eldwick (c/f  photos) who would be able to discern the insect amid the spray of bilberry leaves' And what goes for us also goes for its sharper eyed predators, the birds.

       The presence of spotting on the underside wings of the Green Hairstreak doubtless served some, as yet unknown, evolutionary purpose. It is carried to its furthest extreme in the ab: punctata. Join up the spots and the resulting band compares with those on the White Letter Hairstreak and Black Hairstreak. However, these streaks  also carry a codicil in the form of a tail. It has been argued that these streaks, rather than breaking up the form of the underwings as much thicker bands do on for example, the White Admiral, serve to direct the eye towards the distinctive tail. Hence a bird will tend to strike these rather than the wings and the resulting damage will only marginally effect the aerodynamic capabilities of the butterfly.

        The implications for evolutionary theory is that an increase in spotting in the absence of a tail in the Green Hairstreak is neither one thing or the other and doomed in the long run to disappear. In certain situations this spangled effect resulting from an increase in spotting causes the butterfly to blend better with the spikelets of hair moss, a typical moorland plant which is in bud when the butterfly is on the wing. Also, after an 'April shower' a bankside of bilberry is bedecked with rain drops glistening in the sun and it is amazing the way in which an ab:punctata can be helped to evade detection through this natural phenomena.

        Interestingly, the 7 or 8 'different' Green Hairstreaks in North America is currently giving rise to much controversy. American Lepidopterists are not sure if they can clearly be classified as separate species and refer to an 'intergrade'. In this respect it is not unlike the controversy surrounding the Brown Argus and the Northern Brown Argus and much further from a convincing resolution. One species  of Green Hairstreak would appear to melt into another. A book by the National Audubon's Society: The Field Guide to Northern American Butterflies states:  'As a group, the Green Hairstreaks of the genus Callophrys are difficult to identify: even specialists differ on exactly which species should be recognised. Most of these species seem to intergrade with each other to some degree in one place or another'. (This has to do with the spotting virtually disappearing or contrariwise becoming a band like in the Hesserl's Green Hairstreak). Entomologists have periodically mentioned how little we know about our secretive Green Hairstreak - a view echoed yet again - in the recent The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland but in the comparatively vast wilderness of America it is even more of a mystery. In North America, Green Hairstreaks  inhabit environments as disparate as an empty Alpine landscape to hot and desolate, desert-like, canyon sides. In North America there are such similarities between the Olive Hairstreak and Hesserl's Green Hairstreak as to be virtually indistinguishable, rather like the Small and Essex Skipper in Britain - only more so. In fact, the British caecus form looks very like the American Bramble Green Hairstreak and some American lepidopterists regard the British Green Hairstreak in general, as a sub species of the Bramble Green Hairstreak. In terms of visual similarity - apart from the need to overlook  the slightly reddish blush on the upper wings - one could say the same about the Alpine Green Hairstreak. Furthermore, the Immaculate Green Hairstreak looks like a punctata despite feeding  not on bilberry or gorse but the sulphur flower. In comparison to Britain, little is known not only about the Green Hairstreaks but also other native Lepidoptera. Enviably new species are still being found!  In comparison, Europe has only two Green Hairstreaks, the ubiquitous Callophrys Rubi (literally,"beautiful eyebrows on the bramble') and Chapman's Green Hairstreak residing around the Mediterranean. Interestingly, the latter creature somewhat resembles ab:punctata except that spotting has become  two bands of small dashes on upper and lower underwings.

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The following is a day by day account based on on-the-spot diary jottings from May 19th 2001 to May 27th 2001. Photographs of sites and butterflies accompany this section though not strictly in the appropriate order.

Otley. The Chevin. May 19th 2001

       For most of the day the sky remained overcast so we stayed on 'the big field'. We counted many Green Hairstreaks which had crawled to the top of the bilberry to catch whatever there was of the sun's rays. Unlike other sites the Green Hairstreaks  here, even on dull days, are often clearly visible. The short  sward, rich in budding bilberry fruits, means that the butterfly is sensitive to both the heat absorbing property from beneath the rather rocky base of millstone grit thinly veiled in vegetation and any heat emanating from the sun. A 'warming pan' effect has thus been created. Essentially, 'the big field' is a man-made scree slope where rocks have tumbled down from the abandoned quarry at the top of the field.  Unlike other sites covered with thick and deep bilberry bushes the butterfly responds immediately to any warming effect becoming active in minutes rather than the sometimes almost  hourly waits elsewhere. Once disturbed a few flew a short distance and a couple even made immediately for the young saplings on which to perch. However, none were to be found mating: sunshine was needed for that.

        Today, spending around six hours observing these beautiful Hairstreaks one begins to live on intimate terms with them. Their camouflage is not an exact reproduction of a specific feature like, for instance, a leaf insect. It is an abstract synthesis, a resemblance to (rather than a copy of) many different things. The viridian tint of the wings for instance is almost equivalent to the bilberry bud before it becomes a mauve flower. We also noted a semi-punctata at the base of a bilberry plant. It was lying on the hair moss whose tiny buds bear a striking resemblance to the arc of dots on the Green Hairstreaks wings and which in this instance helped break up the form of the wings. Does this give the butterfly some form of protection from say spiders which have simple eyes and maybe therefore capable of greater visual resolution? In the case of the Green Hairstreaks, the more speculative analogies one makes, the closer one comes to the truth of this compound insect which transfigures rather than more or less faithfully mirroring different aspects of its environment.

Prince of Wales Park, Eldwick, Bradford 16. May 20th 2001

      On arriving in the park at midday there was hazy sunshine to begin quickly followed by a covering of cloud lasting for the rest of the day into early evening. However, a light south-westerly breeze ensured it was warm. Initially the butterfly was flying but then inevitably, it took to the green carpet around our feet. We then duly found the Green Hairstreak resting on grass, heather and bilberry.

        By chance but hardly surprisingly considering her diligence as regards this particular site, Susan Stead showed up. Her infectious enthusiasm was immediately evident. She showed us the spot on top of the bilberry covered brow - in a tall tree lined wind break - where most of the Green Hairstreaks were to be found. She was rather surprised we had seen so many on the lower, more exposed slopes of the bilberry area. The place Susan pointed out was also an area of dead bracken which she felt was possibly crucial to the over-wintering pupae as it retained heat like compost. Even on a day like this, it was certainly warmer than the surrounds and in fact a couple of Green Hairstreaks were immediately to be seen flattened against the dead stalks of bracken soaking up whatever warmth they could. Susan hadn't observed any perching but later around 16.30 hours a couple were noticed flying near the top of a tallish birch tree some 20ft from the ground. They also appeared to be roosting here because we never saw them again down among the bilberry. The higher reaches of the birch were preferred to the lower branches because at that time of day they were more likely to catch whatever sun's rays were still in the offing whereas the lower branches, no matter what, would have remained in shadow.

           A Jay was to be seen hopping warily but keenly about and similar to the one we'd noticed on the Chevin the previous day. This one would hop down from the lower branches of trees and disappear  into the bilberry thickets. It was clearly attracted by the bilberry's insect population. None of the other birds were quite so blatant - at least while humans were in the park. A blue tit was noticed high up in a birch tree with an insect in its mouth. Most likely in yesterday's, dull and cool conditions, the insects would not have been in evidence in the Prince of Wales park possibly taking to 'basking' in the tree tops crawling out from the undersides of the leaves.

The Prince of Wales Park, Eldwick. May 20th 2001 Brow of the park on the same day 
Below: Spot the punctata
Below: punctata and leaf litter
Prince of Wales  Scrub Otley
It was a day of fitful sunshine gradually becoming overcast though remaining warm throughout. The cryptic adaptation of the butterfly is here near perfect even down to the reddish brown fringe of the bilberry leaf and even close approximation to leaf shape.         The protective blanket provided by leaf litter and decaying stalks may assist over-wintering pupa to stay warm. According to Susan Stead this spot constitutes the heart of the colony.

 Gill Brow: West of the Chevin, Otley, 21st May 2001

       This was a new site we had previously observed from a distance climbing steeply from the ribbon  housing development fronting the Bradford/Leeds road coming out of Otley. For a new site and one that is surprisingly unrecorded it is a very big site indeed numbering a 1000 plus. We came to the site from the Menston end and waited in a grassy pathway at the top of the brow for clouds to clear slowly from the west over Ilkley Moor. With the sunny weather approaching we moved down the steepish gradient where we quickly spotted Green Hairstreaks jinking about birch and hawthorn perching the usual seven feet or so from the ground.

       Green Hairstreaks here showed a particular fondness for the gorse and we even saw one nectaring on a gorse flower. In fact, very few on this particular day were to be found on the bilberry. In fact it's becoming urgent to establish clearly if the butterfly in the Pennines does or doesn't use the gorse as a sometime alternative foodplant to bilberry. However, investigating areas of gorse away from nearby bilberry so far has proved negative. Most Green Hairstreaks on this site preferred to perch, roost and sun themselves on the branches of hawthorns, rowan, oak and gorse. They also tended to prefer the upper branches but this was maybe due to the relative absence of clear sunshine beyond an hour or so. After that, a dark cloud stayed put continually recreated perhaps by the damp thermals rising from the river Wharfe.

        Gill Brow is more bio-diverse than the Chevin. We noticed two small specimens of the Latticed Heath moth as well as Common Heaths. Interestingly two days earlier no such moths were to seen flying on 'the big field' on the Chevin despite the 'warming pan' effect. For certain the plant and tree population is also more diverse and possibly the same can be said of the bird life. The red/purple flowers of either common vetch or smooth tar were much in evidence.

Gill Brow, west of the Chevin above Otley. May 23rd 2001 Both photos below were taken to emphasise the closeness of the butterfly to the town
Note the steep hillside descending to the  roofs Note the ash tree has yet to come into leaf
 Wintry Otley


Ambler Thorn, Queensbury, Bradford 13. 22nd May 2001

      We'd discovered this potential site in early February 2001 after taking a walk to Mountain (so-called because it achieves the altitude of a mountain) and then following Halifax back road on the fringes of  Queensbury. We asked a couple of farmers if they knew of any bilberry. One replied in all seriousness was he Frank Berry's brother' Once this misunderstanding was cleared up we all had a good laugh. A little later going over rough and steep ground descending from a  trailer park we came via a back way into the unknown ( it seems unknown by most Bradford naturalists) Oats Royd Wildlife Reserve and Lakes. Bilberry here and there grows extensively if not in profusion. Though bleak and exposed we wondered if we'd struck lucky' On the 22nd of May approaching by Oats Royd Road on a glorious sunny day we had within seconds  seen a Green Hairstreak. This was a clearly bilberry oriented population with the butterfly preferring the plant to anything else. On a lower slope alongside the road which has now become a rough cinder path, females fluttering more hesitantly than the darting, devil-may-care males, would settle on bilberry probing for suitable egg laying plants. One of us observed a female arching her body and delicately depositing an egg on the tip of a bilberry bud. Other Green Hairstreaks would occasionally settle on the moor grass and on the lower branches of newly planted conifers and larch.

Oats Royd Nature Reserve, Ambler Thorn. May 22nd 2001 Green Hairstreak on a steep bank path in Oats Royd on the same day 
(See photos of Holly Bank Bluff further on)  (Left. Holly Bank Bluff is in the distance)
 Ambler Thorn  Oats Royd
In the distance behind the butterfly can be seen the reserve's small lakes and the outlines of the industrial estates on the fringes of Halifax. In this area, though in no other in the immediate vicinity, Green Hairstreaks would frequently alight on clumps of coarse moorland grass away from the extensive covering of bilberry. The one here kept returning to the same clump. This behaviour was more in evidence than the use of young conifers as perches and maybe sex-linked.
A Green Hairstreak on the steep bank side of a path passing directly through the Oats Royd Nature Reserve. The area was once intensively mined accounting for the presence of shale spoil heaps and also goes by the name of Catherine Slack.


Northcliffe Woods golf course. Shipley, Bradford 18. May 22nd 2001

      On the same glorious day in a desperate effort to try and verify as many Green Hairstreak sites as possible we travelled quickly  from one location to another. A couple of years ago we'd noted out of season that some of the Northcliffe Woods golf course fringes between the putting green and  the  Yorkshire stone walls fronting a farmer's fields contained a roughly yard wide verge of thick bilberry. No doubt because golfers had complained about losing golf balls in the bilberry thickets, to our dismay, the long fringe had been grubbed out. What a find this would have been: the three Yorkshire Hairstreaks in the same wood! (In the 1990s the White Letter Hairstreak had been discovered in Carl Taylor's remarkable wildlife allotments). Alas this was not to be and most likely the same hand which had felled the single oak around which a small Purple Hairstreak population had gathered in early 2000 had probably in the same instance destroyed a most unusual Green Hairstreak colony. Bitterly we reflected on how golf, this most selfish of sports, swallowed up large tracts of land on the fringes of towns and cities turning them into lifeless expanses of mown turf.

Shipley High Moor. Stoney Ridge. Stoney Lee School. Cottingley, Bradford 16. May 22nd 2000.

       An uphill climb along High Royds away from Northcliffe golf course will, after a few twists and turns, open out onto Stoney Ridge and Shipley High Moor which looks down onto Cottingley and, beyond, Bingley. The name sounds rather grand but the reality is very different. This hillside giving out onto marshy scrub land below is criss crossed with muddy paths. It is also littered with the remains of picnics and drunken festivities. Yet somehow amid the detritus, bilberry has found a toehold though looking every bit as wasted as the garbage. Yet unbelievably, the Green Hairstreak is also flying here though in small numbers. One showed a predilection for an empty cider bottle which had been tossed to one side. Was it attracted by the green plastic or the bottle's heat absorbing capacity? The former would imply that it had a notion of its own greenness which is hard to swallow. Was it a matter of warmth or did the butterfly feel more secure resting against the green background of this throwaway consumer item? At least twice we failed to get a photo. However, we successfully managed to photograph the butterfly on the patch of gorse surrounding the electricity pylons at the base of this apology for a 'moor'. In spite of the scattering of bilberry on the slope the butterflies were much attracted to the gorse.

Hanging Falls and Fall Top Quarries. Clayton, Bradford 14. May 22nd 2000

       Early in the evening we returned to the Queensbury area, or rather, its approaches. For sometime we had noticed from the Halifax Road leading up to Queensbury from  Horton Bank Top a craggy outcrop  fringing Clayton which appeared to support bilberry. Mistakenly, we thought it once must have formed part of the wonderful old railway line which once wended its way from Bradford to Keighley. It was nearly 19.00 hours by the time we arrived and the sun was sinking low in the sky. Clambering down a slope packed with bilberry we disturbed a Green Hairstreak roosting on a hawthorn perch. This was the first and last Green Hairstreak we saw but, undoubtedly there will be many more. Over a fair sized area much frequented by people walking their dogs from nearby Clayton bilberry was growing abundantly.  Of all Green Hairstreak sites so far discovered this is the closest to Bradford city centre.

Yet again on Gill Brow and a visit to Beacon Hill Moor, The Chevin, May 23rd 2000

       Within the space of two days the Green Hairstreaks here were now behaving rather differently. How strange! We had hoped to photograph them on the gorse towards the upper middle of the brow but not one was to be seen on the yellow flowers unlike 48 hours earlier. Instead the butterflies were to be found on the lower slopes at the same time as they were perching on small trees much higher up the hillside more towards the West Chevin spur. It really was inexplicable. Maybe the males like to seek out other locations while the females restrict themselves to covering the carpet of bilberry looking for suitable egg laying sites. However, more than most butterflies we've observed, Green Hairstreaks do seem to vary their activity from day to day contributing even further to their elusive characterisation. A slight drop or rise in temperature can cause their behaviour to change dramatically. For instance  a clutch of Green Hairstreaks darting about the small and medium sized trees in a relatively secluded grove fairly high upon the Brow suddenly disappeared for a few minutes. For what reason? At the same instance we also noted that the profusion of micro male longhorn moths (nemophora degeerella) dancing incessantly together close to the foliage of trees  and through which Green Hairstreaks would often dart, suddenly ceased their  frantic moth quadrilles  and also, in a flash, disappeared. It was  as if  some intra-specific signal had simultaneously made itself felt amongst several species of insect and which we humans were oblivious of.  Perhaps a slight change in temperature caused temporarily by wispy clouds high in the sky crossing the sun was enough to cause this change. But two minutes later coinciding with the reappearance of the Green Hairstreak, other insects including the longhorns were once more dancing madly.

         Come mid afternoon we  set off on the long slog up to the top of Surprise View on the crest of Beacon Hill Moor beneath which magnificent beeches of Chevin Forest spread.  It was a perfect sunny day on which to establish if the Green Hairstreak had finally conquered the bilberry-laden heights leading up to Surprise View. In 1997, we had searched for it there in vain though it was admittedly around 18.00 hours. A little earlier that day we had seen one fluttering over grazing land at the top of Millar Lane where the path divides leading up to Surprise View. This time, almost immediately, we found the insect though the fairly widespread colony appeared to be restricted to the lower and middle slopes. Many showed a preference for sheltered clearings.  Despite the fact the colony must number between 100/150 adults,  a warden had emphatically claimed there were no Green Hairstreaks on the wing at this height! The butterflies though did tend to 'turn in' earlier than elsewhere. However, around 17.00 hours we noticed a strange occurrence: Green Hairstreaks in pristine condition would alight on the sandy path flanking the  beech wood slopes to probably catch the sun's cooling rays. We had never witnessed this behaviour before. When disturbed the insect would fly a few feet along the path to land on it once more.

        One further point of interest: a number of Meadow Pipits could be seen on Beacon Hill Moor. With effortless ease they were able to land on sprigs of bilberry from where they could get a good view of any insects flying just above the covering of bilberry. Many a Green Hairstreak must be taken out by these birds swaying precariously on their observation posts. It is said that the feet of the Meadow Pipit are adjusted to walking on the ground while its close relative, the Tree Pipit, has a shortened curved back claw enabling it to grip branches to steady itself. Lacking this hook on its feet, the Meadow Pipit nevertheless has found a way of balancing on insubstantial strands of bilberry enough to be a considerable menace to small populations of Green Hairstreak on open moorland. And there are more Meadow Pipits here than on 'the big field' directly below the lengthy, steep drop down through the beech wood.

Gill Brow above Otley. 21st May 2001   Gill Brow and emerging may blossom on same day 
Green Hairstreak nectaring on gorse flowers Mating Green Hairstreaks on a perch
 Gorse Otley  Gill Brow


Ambler Thorn. Windy Bank Lane and Holly Bank Bluff. Queensbury. Bradford 13. May 24th 2001

        As it was another sunny day we decided to return to Ambler Thorn to check out more precisely the extent of this obviously large site. This time we descended the hill of Oats Royd right down to the stream known as Strines beck. Sure enough bilberry covered these lower slopes and Green Haistreaks were plentiful. The patches of bilberry were interspersed amongst the fine moorland grasses. Rather unusually, the butterflies would take to the grass resting on stalks from which they were clearly visible. Was this behaviour sex conditioned as it was difficult to be sure if the Green Hairstreaks taking to the grass were females or males or both? Those going down onto the grass were easier to approach than the butterflies that stuck to the bilberry only ever leaving to perch on a branch.  From the hillsides we had noticed through binoculars that as Strines beck wended its way down the valley it encountered a kind of ravine which was covered in heather intermingled with the occasional bilberry clump. Situated right next to the Holmfield Industrial Estate it looked enticing though on arrival we were in for a disappointment: the patches of bilberry were insufficient to support any butterfly. This flooded ravine was, in itself, amazing as it was the deep gorge through which the old railway line from Queensbury emerged from a long tunnel into Halifax. Young lads swimming there said it was so deep they'd never even reached the bottom.

       Having cast an eye over this fascinating feature we headed on up the hill towards the main Halifax/Bradford road. Remarkably we found a small colony of Green Hairstreaks on a very exposed bank side by the side of a road appropriately named Windy Bank Lane which ascends from Ovenden through Catherine Slack to Ambler Thorn. In fact the place was so bleak one of us stubbornly insisted it was a complete waste of time to look for the butterfly here. But we were hardly there than an ab: caecus obligingly posed for a photo. Even the few trees that had taken root here had been twisted into tormented shapes by the unpitying winds.

       Finally, arriving at the foot of Crooked Lane we ascended Holly Bank Bluff on the perimeter of Queensbury ever hopeful we would find the Green Hairstreak. The weather had put a stop to our endeavours during the past three years. As expected  we found the butterfly on top of the bluff descending from Queensbury to Boothtown. Although bilberry can be found clinging extensively  to the slopes all around  to Boothtown, the butterfly easily preferred the south facing slope of Crooked Lane. Here they generally kept close to the fringe of fairly mature fir trees shooting off high into the tree canopy where they would become lost to view. By 16.00. hours they quieted down somewhat making them easier to photograph. By 16.45  they had all but settled down for the night. One of us got the distinct impression that the Holly Bank Green Hairstreaks were a little smaller than usual. Crossing the stream which descends through the small ravine from which the Queensbury bluff rises, the Green Hairstreak colonisation seems to come to an abrupt end even though the bilberry grows thicker and  more extensively here. How curious but more about that next.

The bottom of Holly Bank and Howcans Lane. Bradford and Halifax. May 25th 2001

        The last day! We needed however, to establish just how far this site extended as the previous evening looking down from the main road we had noticed a secluded and sheltered area of bilberry close to Hollin Hall and intersected by Howcans Lane. Despite a dull start the sun appeared about midday. However, we didn't see one Green Hairstreak as we walked up and down Howcans Lane even though the environment appeared perfect. What to think' It is beginning to look as if the insect has yet to arrive even though the bilberry grows without a break right through from Holly Bank. However, the bank all day round is at an oblique angle to the sun's rays and is devastatingly bleak and windswept. Will the Green Hairstreak ever choose to settle here? If so, how long will it take? One year, two years or more?  What we may have here is a yardstick in the making, from which we may be able to arrive at a better estimate of the time taken to expand into new areas  in the Bradford Metropolitan District.

       We returned to Holly Bank Bluff  to check if the Green Hairstreaks were flying there. Who knows but a subtle change in temperature may have grounded all the Green Hairstreaks on this site'  Thankfully, the creatures were on the wing. This time we descended to the low ground fringing the Holmfield Industrial Estate. Though the butterflies seemed to prefer the upper slopes to the lower, to our amazement  we found them on a scrawny patch of what appeared to be recently germinated bilberry next to the Holmfield Industrial Estate. There were also little tufts of heather amidst decaying brittle stalks of the plant, arising a foot or so above the ground. Obviously it was a place in which plants like heather and bilberry become quickly desiccated and die off once they reach a certain size. The heather had obviously been here for some time but what of the bilberry? Again one needs to know more about bilberry in the Bradford area. Thin patches of bilberry are to be found all the way down Holly Bank and as the plant spreads by a root system it will have the effect of knitting the soil together and preventing soil creep. The conifers here must have planted with that end in view. The hoof marks of cows and bulls could clearly be seen in the ground and if it wasn't for this binding the bank side would be constantly crumbling away. Seeing the Green Hairstreaks in the vicinity of a functioning factory estate was definitely the crowning glory of a good week in  which we had found seven new sites. The one example we photographed of this factory proletariat of Green Hairstreaks was an ab: caecus.

Windy Bank Lane from Ovenden to Queensbury,  junction of Crooked Lane, May 24th 2001  Holme Field Industrial Estate at the base of a steep  descent from Holly Bank Bluff, May 25th 2001 
 Windy Bank Lane  Halifax
Beneath the pylon resides a bleak and windswept small colony of Green Hairstreaks If minutely examined the photograph would reveal an ab:caecus Green Hairstreak resting on tender shoots of bilberry which appear not to grow to any great height because of desiccation


      To re-cap: Importantly what we found in the spring of 2001 was that Green Hairstreak behaviour in the various locations around Bradford tended to differ; e.g. the predilection for gorse flowers at Brow Gill and for resting on grass at Ambler Thorn being the most salient contrast. Moreover, such particular behaviour also tends to modify itself daily according to slightly changing weather conditions. One further rather axiomatic point: it is now becoming imperative to know if the presence of bilberry has dramatically increased over say the past two decades and if so, is this simply to do with global warming.

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A Modest Proposal...
         Responding to the question how can we increase the Green Hairstreak population in the Bradford Metropolitan District, we must first acknowledge it is doing supremely well without any assistance. Nothing much needs to be done on any site with the exception of  Gill Brow at Otley which is in danger of being overrun by  invading scrub. The bilberry left would then be unsuitable for egg laying females and the colony would die out. The same danger applies, though to a lesser degree, to Oats Royd Nature Reserve in Queensbury). We feel sure the philanthropic owners would be responsive to the dangers of any further shading out of the bilberry. It is, of course, a delight to hear the sound of the Green Woodpecker on these  formerly treeless hill side. The point, however, is to balance competing requirements and the owners may not be aware of the existence of the Green Hairstreak in such numbers in and about their creation.

        However, it is possible to intervene in one area. Why not encourage the Green Hairstreak to come down into the centre of Bradford by planting  bilberry in public places  over which the council has some jurisdiction? The nearest and most promising colony from which the butterfly might migrate is Fall Top Quarries, Clayton. It is also in the direction of the prevailing winds. Hundreds of small bilberry plants could be planted all over the eco-oriented Horton Country Park, on the site of the of an old Yorkshire Water reservoir adjacent to the former Thornton View hospital closed in 1984. This new park is only a mile or so from Fall Top quarries which is visible from the park ramparts. Heather grows here but apart from a smidgen (which may have rooted in 2001) bilberry is absent.  A little further down from Horton Country Park we would suggest planting bilberry in Brackenhill Park especially on the side of a disused railway cutting leading to  Beckside Road. Finally, why not plant the Boars Well with bilberry and which might eventually bring the butterfly right into the heart of Bradford itself.

         A second front could be opened linking up with Stoney Ridge, Cottingley. Why not plant bilberry on Wrose Brow and West Royd (the lower Cat Stones do have a few bilberry patches) and on the bare, abandoned spoil heaps of Gaisby quarries which naturally flow into the Boars Well? Although the Boars Well is rather low down there's no reason why bilberry shouldn't grow here as, after all, the plant flourishes on Austwick Moss in Cravendale on which a Green Hairstreak colony survives.

         Just looking at the insect is a pleasure in itself but a scientific purpose maybe served here which would tell us something about the speed at which the butterfly has crept upon us. Just how long would it take for the butterfly to colonise these new sites unaided? Meanwhile, we only have Susan Stead's observations on the founding and expansion of a colony of Green Hairstreak in the Prince of Wales park, Eldwick. How long it will take before the butterfly takes up residence on the sides of Howcans Lane above Boothtown remains to be seen.

          There would be new innovative features to the colonisation of specifically urban sites. The Green Hairstreak would now have to cross houses, roads, retail parks, factories and whatever else to arrive at these new destinations. Once lifted by thermals what lies below it maybe of little importance so the butterfly may colonise these new sites fairly quickly. The butterfly's arrival at Stoney Ridge may have involved crossing roads and housing in Cottingley before finally descending on the scurvy bilberry of the ridge. However, that is nothing in comparison to the task of reaching the Boars Well.

          We note with interest that Kirklees metropolitan council over the last couple of years has embarked on an ambitious project planting 360,000 wild flower plants creating 200 wild flower meadows covering 40 acres from Denby Dale to Batley, Mirfield to Meltham. This work has been carried out by the council, school children and community groups. Now Kirklees are targeting roadside grass verges hoping to create new, elongated, nature reserves. Yorkshire Water has helped fund this putting in £24,000 over the last couple of years. Since its debacle in the summer drought of the mid-90s, the company has obviously sought to improve its image by becoming very environmentally conscious. An eco-plumber friend of ours who joined in the Newbury by-pass protests even met a Yorkshire Water environmental officer in the Newbury tunnels who promptly persuaded him to take on some eco projects in Leeds broadly around intelligent but pleasing water conservation. Two are now being completed: one a garden constantly rejuvenated through re-cycled water for patients convalescing in St James's cardiac wards, the other on a barren brownfield site near Leeds city centre.

Horton Country Park, Bradford 7. A 1990s eco-creation leased and developed by Yorkshire Water  Ab; punctata, "The Big Field", Otley Chevin, May 19th 2001. Beyond lies Otley and Lindley Moor
 Horton Bank Park  Big Field
Photograph taken from the vantage point of a wall running part of the length of the park - a former Yorkshire Water reservoir on the morning after finding the Green Hairstreak on Fall Top Quarries in Clayton on the 27th May 2001 and merely a mile or so away. In the absence of bilberry we weren't to find any Green Hairstreaks. Since then a reasonable amount of bilberry has been transplanted from Shibden Head and we await with curiosity to see if the butterfly will show interest.  Green Hairstreaks were in evidence on The Big Field on this cloudy day with fitful sun. In such dull conditions  the butterfly in most other places in West Yorkshire would be conspicuous by its absence.  However, on this part of the Chevin, the Green Hairstreak will climb up to the tip of a bilberry stalk though will rarely fly. Here the  glancing sun hits  an ab: punctata  wings.



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On the non-art of nature photography: a long though essential digression on the dominant image of butterfly photography.

        An explanation of the accompanying butterfly photographs is necessary. Some, though not all, were taken on 120 medium format film. The aim was to get as much background and habitat in as possible without sacrificing detail. This approach explicitly rejects specimen shot photography which for the sake of detail all but isolates insects, in particular, from their immediate environment.

      This emphasis on the distinguishing characteristics of a species goes back to antiquity and the revival of learning in the Renaissance. Before the genus came the species and it was only possible to arrive at the former through a meticulous description of the latter. This is what Leonardo intuited when he began to note resemblances between plants often first studying one and then another in detail in the countryside around Florence. Likewise, the photographic detailing of Durer's watercolours of plants, rabbits and so on can be said to found a tradition of natural scientific illustration. None of the works mentioned above were for display and were awaiting the emergence of the natural scientific treatise in book form. In due course it did so becoming almost popular by the time Baron Cuvier began to put together his 'Lectures in Comparative Anatomy' (1795). The closeness of the year to the French revolution (1789) is also apparent from the services of the professional illustrator Cuvier employed to depict in lifeless outlines his researches in comparative anatomy. Though Cuvier's hand was not gripping the pencil he undoubtedly guided it theoretically. In the same period, Adam Smith's blistering indictment of the division of labour appears. More savage even than Marx in his denunciation, Smith is obliged, however, to justify this unprecedented and awful novelty which, having its origins in the worst excesses of slavery, begins to permeate not just the factory system but the whole of life.

         This particular form of flattened, diagrammatic illustration was mainly concerned with externals. Used for identification purposes the fixity of species was its unspoken supposition. But this period was marked by another tendency that reflects, however unwittingly, the evolutionary outlook of Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck. The political radical Thomas Bewick was no less radical in his wood engravings. Game birds disappear into the foliage. Outline formally so beloved by illustrators as the guarantor of the species becomes blurred and ill-defined. Where does Bewick's 'Woodcock' end and the background begin? Wordsworth in The Green Linnet refers to it as 'the brother of the dancing leaves'. Beyond the slogans of natural selection like 'survival of the fittest' how much did crypsis play in the evolution of the theory? Its close relation, mimicry, as formulated by the entomologist Bates amongst the Heliocossius butterfly, was greeted by a delighted Darwin as living proof of evolution.

       When photography was first invented, its scientific potential was almost at once apparent but it had to wait until well into the 20th century before it became the commonplace of illustration. And like in the early experimental portraiture of Hill, Nadar and Cameron, we are hard put nowadays to equal the black and white bird photos of Eric Hoskins and those of insects by Beaufoy. In a recently published book, The Ecology of Walls  (1981) the author, the biologist, Arnold Darlington, has reproduced a photo of the willow goose in its winter plumage taken by Hoskin. It has, in the age of the Hubble telescope, to be all of 55 years old.          

        To say that advances in optics and miniturisation has made the job too easy is only part of the story. In later life, Hoskin's was reluctant to use the 35mm format and telephoto lenses though use them he did for Birds of Prey of the World. Yet, nonetheless, he remained uneasy. What he was gaining in sharpness, shutter speed and colour he was losing in intimacy with his subject. Seen through a telephoto lens, the birds appeared suspended against a featureless backdrop reproducing at a much later date in colour photography, that flattening effect of earlier illustrators. And it is this absence of context that subsequently was to triumph in wildlife photography particularly in field guides and amongst 'amateur photographers' who were (mis)guided by these very guides.

         Birds of the Night by Eric Hoskins and Cyril Newbury is one of those rare moments when something is added to a genre, indeed almost explodes it. The photos, particularly of barn owls, were a technical triumph involving the use of a 5 by 7 plate camera and two synchronised flash bulbs. There were also an element of randomness in the shots because particularly in the darkness of the hide it was not always clear what was going on. The book has also been commended for the beauty of its writing. (How much of this came from the practise of taking notes in situ, writing criss-cross, layer upon layer of notes in the pitch black of the hide which then had to be deciphered in broad daylight?) Nevertheless, despite this appealing lack of orthodoxy it is surprising the number of times the text describes what is happening in photographing as if taking pot luck can be rewarding. The fact that we need to step outside the photograph, focus it through a caption or, written information or theoretical explanation, is today a pressing one. It is the only way the visual can be salvaged.

          Reading Hoskin's ironically entitled biography, An Eye for a Bird (he lost it to a tawny owl the same one which appears in the scientific postscript to Birds of the Night comparing the human eye to the owl's) it is doubtful how versed he was in evolutionary theory. Certainly, he had the highest regard for Julian Huxley. Yet to look at his photos of bitterns sitting erect and perfectly camouflaged  in the reeds, woodcock or willow grouse, is to realise these are not just bird photos looking every bit as stuffed as in the museums but sensitive studies of bird life. Insect photography has yet to reach this stage and often because of their size there are optical difficulties to achieving it. In late May 2001, one of us, using a medium format camera tried to photograph a Black Hairstreak nectaring on a bramble flower against a bank of blackthorn. Try as one may, the blackthorn remained a more or less indistinct blur. The Black Hairstreak and bramble proved to be in focus and there was a distinct sense of a sunlit copse with blue sky and branches. Only the blackthorn, an essential ingredient of the butterfly's habitat was not instantly recognisable. (c/f the photograph here of the Black Hairstreak).

        Whilst photographing, the clearing was invaded by a loutish bunch of photographers. Brandishing bazooka lenses costing at least £3,000 a piece, we were unceremoniously pushed aside because of our 'inferior' equipment. Standing some distance from the bramble bush they each ran off a film. Yet not one of their photos - lacking depth of field - would say anything more about the insect other than it was a Black Hairstreak. This paparazzi of nature photography could only sneer at our repeated failures to get close to the restless butterfly, not to mention the habit of shooting blind. Yet an intelligent use of a box brownie could have produced more interesting results than these techno-thugs were capable of. Lacking all connection with habitat their ideal of a perfect photo has more to do with the systematics of the image than that of species. As such it represents the commodification of nature behind which the real is masked. Nature to this lot was a stop over, a series of reservations linked by motorways ' they had already been to Chambers Farm Wood in Lincolnshire that day prior to motoring down to Cow Pasture Wood in Northhants. This fast tracking of nature lasted all of half an hour (just as one of us thought it would) leaving us to observe the behaviour of the Black Hairstreak until well past bedtime when they went off to roost in the blackthorn.

Black Hairstreak on a bramble bush, Cow Pasture Wood near Oundle, Northants, 22nd June 2001  Green Hairstreak. ab caecus. Above the river Ryburn, near Ripponden, West Yorks, June 22nd 1997
Black Hairstreak  Caecus
The above was taken on a 120mm film with an aperture setting of F22. Though the detailing on the butterfly is adequate, the massed banks of blackthorn - the host food plant - are not sufficiently in focus despite setting the camera for maximum depth of field. Inevitably, a false picture is created and truth to nature is lost. Perhaps only by cropping a large negative such as used in a field camera will it be possible to situate larger insects within their specific habitats. Either that or stitching together several digitised photographs which, invariably has an artificial montage look because of problems with perspective. Each adjustment in the focal length of the lens in order to sharply define near, middle and far distance involves a change in viewpoint - an operation the human/animal eye does effortlessly.  


       Fixated by close-ups of species there is too much nature in nature photography. Stepping back reveals not only a wider circumference essential to the life of the species but also the growing precariety of what we broadly understand as 'nature'. Lacking context we don't get to see the buildings, car parks, road side verges and trains. How often have we glimpsed above us a butterfly briefly framed against a plane flying high in the sky? And yet to transmit this fact of contemporary nature is fraught with difficulties. It can also send out all the wrong signals implying that life is beautiful while in fact we, and thousands of other species, are locked into a deadly end game. Only the most searching, all embracing revolution can possibly reverse this tendency.

        And yet, the easier way, the way of increasingly sophisticated photographic gadgetry only succeeds (technically it can do no other) in isolating nature, which then succumbs to the most dangerous fetish of all ' that of pure nature. On the graves of the utopianists, industry and nature become one absorbing millions of pounds annually. Yet in appearance, in the direct visual sense of the term, they posture as antagonists. But in fact, the Fuerbachian myth of an unadulterated nature is a money spinner as never before. Paradoxically, the very image of its purity, represents the industrialisatiuon of romanticism and is an all important component in the ideology of post-industrial capitalism. One has only to glance through astronomy or ornithology magazines to see the amount of space taken up by advertising telescopes, binoculars, camera and camera lenses etc. The digital revolution is still in its infancy as regards the 'reality' scenarios it has to offer. A wild life video shown on TV and no doubt syndicated, showed Monarch butterflies flying between skyscrapers and over tenement buildings in New York. Obviously, the butterflies had been photographed against a backdrop of trees which had then been edited out. Next we were shown a Monarch on a sidewalk succumbing to the first frosts of autumn as a lattice of ice crystals rapidly covered its wings. We've seen Monarchs in downtown Manhattan but the digitised imagery failed to convey a true impression of them in this untypical environment. All the video did was represent a triumph of fantasy over fact, of technique over content.

         In today's world, the increased exposure to manipulated images of nature even when 'true' tends to create a self-sufficient second nature. We are so to speak screened from nature.

        How exceptional as a mere child ten years old, was a first look through Birds of the Night. Not only did the photographs of birds make a lasting impression  on us but the hides also. When the book was put back into the shelf it continued to live on in the imagination. We wanted to set up home in trees. Suggestive of a new space and time the book also turned night into day.

        This was the book's unconscious message of which Hoskin's does not speak. No other bird photographer before or since was on such intimate terms with his subject. The hides all but became his home and beyond these ingenious parallel constructs to the trees, one senses Hoskin's had glimpsed in them a different way of living. The degree of absorption in which the conventional boundaries between man and animal break down was aptly summed up in the title of a book by Heinz Seilman - another great bird photographer - My Year With The Woodpeckers.

         What we see in Hoskin's photos some other vertebrates also see or, rather, don't see. There is a  continuity between animal and background akin to selection and at odds with the identification and naming of species which had hitherto ruled supreme. They resonate far beyond books they were intended for. Properly understood they shatter walls. What is at issue here, is not just photography but a whole way of life.

         Hegel in his The Philosophy of the Fine Arts was the first to grasp the principle of the historical periodisation of form.  His discussion of the Dutch School, which set the tone for so much natural history illustration, is viewed from the perspective of the struggle against Spain and the Catholic church. Dutch society enshrines 'the prose of life' by, 'taking a renewed delight by means of its pictures in the cleanliness under all conditions of its towns, house  and domestic arrangements, in its portraits, landscapes, animals, flowers and the rest'. It is also, even then, a predominately urban society consisting of 'citizens of the town' in which nature is celebrated by being hung on walls.

          Yet Dutch flower pieces have an exaggerated quality to them as if they are no longer a part of nature. They are rather a triumph - and quite a bit more - of Dutch horticulture. Behind them lurks a mania for exaggeration like the stock market in tulip bulbs. The butterflies that occasionally appear in them  are not always immediately recognisable - like the Grayling - whilst some are downright confections passed off as truth to nature. But thereafter in the field of natural history illustration, life became still life, lacking in fidelity to the way things were perceived in the field. Overly conscious of the artistic heritage, a stag beetle would - blown out of all proportion - come to dominate the landscape like the stag in 'The Monarch of the Glen'. No wonder the arid two dimensionality of line engraving should find favour amongst the scientific community of the 19th century.

          Nature in Hegel's The Philosophy of the Fine Arts only puts in an episodic appearance. It is entirely subordinate to the main, hitherto unexplained aim, which is to link artistic production to historical epochs. The audacity of this claim at once links it to historical materialism. When however, he comes to deal specifically with nature in The Philosophy of Nature, we are left in no doubt of Hegel's anti-evolutionary stance. Though quoting at length from Lamarck, it is Lamarck's studies in systematics he acknowledges not his evolutionary theories. This most historical of philosophers astonishingly falls at the critical hurdle of evolution. Confronted with this fact, he yearns once more for a philosophy of identity which has been the task of his entire philosophy to undermine. Amphibians make him uneasy. Neither creatures exclusively of land or water, they are like a bas-relief neither painting or sculpture. However much we may now smirk at the nonsensical nature of some of Hegel's views they do strive to be all encompassing. And this is not only apparent from his analogies. Though it is essential we expunge the philosophy from nature, who today would have the insight to link plant life to that of the state and thus put on a firmer footing, Hegel's undeniably fantastical ruminations? However much nature studies gained scientifically after Hegel and irrevocably eclipsing his work, we also inescapably feel in them a loss of dimension that was vividly present in Hegel.

          Thus here we have the contemporary beginnings of that divorce between nature and society each going its own way and which catastrophically prevents ecological critique from arriving at an autonomous outlook. Either that or, submission to the claim nature is a social category which effectively denies the power of nature to hit back. Curiously Hegel's nature is bedevilled with a pan-logicism which adds up to a a totally passive view of nature. We have not an inkling of the great earth works, quarrying, mines and canals that were laying bare strata each with its own fossil remains. Nor are we aware of how agriculture has changed landscapes, or of the domestication of animals and plants. It is as though a veil has been drawn over nature both in the past and in the present and we are left to trust in providence.

          Though Hegel has been undeservedly consigned to oblivion as a naturalist and natural scientist, Kant has faired a little better. Living somewhat prior to the twin cataclysms of the French and industrial revolutions, history played an infinitely lesser part in his philosophy than it did in Hegel. When he came to write his celebrated treatise on aesthetics, The Critique of Judgement (1790) he combined both art and nature within the circumference of the beautiful. Though in his old age, he gave his blessing to the French revolution, he judged each succeeding epoch as 'equally close to God', a view that was an anathema to his far more historically minded successor, Hegel. So anyone that comes to The Critique of Judgement hoping for some historical overview will be in for a disappointment.

       Yet history was working behind Kant's back because in his The Critique of Judgement unbeknown to himself, he was anticipating the growing centrality of art and nature to bourgeois society. And yet without seeing further, he was canny enough to admit to the consoling function of the aesthetic (which also included nature) giving a palpable glimpse of an infinitely delayed future freedom he chose to call, the 'symbolic expression of the supra-sensible' or, ' beauty as a symbol of morality' in which morality has to be understood as the realisation of the authentic in mankind and not as something squalid. Unlike Hegel, he was blind to the decay of artistic form but Kant's a-historical views were to increasingly underwrite the fetishism of creativity which bourgeois society had ever greater need of.

        In Hegel's, The Phenomenology of Mind the appreciation of nature comes into its own at the end of history. It is however, a cognitive essence: we study nature to extrapolate its laws. This unappetising lack of zest is the fruit and resolution of a long period of melancholia which coincides with the Christian era, the unhappy consciousness, in which man cannot become himself because of his dependence on representation. It is moreover, intimately bound up with the unfolding dialectic of master and slave wherein work is pivotal. In the real world away from the philosopher's cloister, the popular response to nature's spectacles was a mixture of both pleasure and melancholy incorporating elements from both Hegel and Kant but in a vastly altered and finally more lucid perspective. In the end, it was Keats who was more attuned to the temper of the times. But today we stand before nature tongue tied and frozen with horror. The poetic perished a long time ago and we are left with only the silence and emptiness of despair.

         We are also a little uneasy today with Kant's examples of purposelessness in nature which to him was an essential component of the beautiful ( the purposeless was anti-functional and therefore could not be possessed by acquisitive beings). Living in a Darwinian age we know so much 'beauty' serves a purpose like the wings of some  (though by no means all) butterflies which Kant cites as an example of purposeless and therefore free beauty concretely anticipating mankind's ultimate endeavours (which Kant thought incapable of realisation). For this reason biologists still pay homage to Kant. Ernst Mayer, a figure of outstanding importance in evolutionary synthesis, mentions The Critique of Judgement in his Evolution of Biological Thought (1982). Aware of its looming presence he is unable to begin to grasp its real significance, a measure of how much even the faint semblance of a totality has been lost.

     That a canker has been introduced into the heart of nature by a blind use of its resources and by blind social forces is a question not even posed by either Kant or Hegel. The threat of nature turning round and eventually taking terrible revenge was subsequently written out of the tenants of historical materialism. All, including its idealist forebears, not only do not feel the urge to live differently but do not see it as an overriding necessity, a matter of life and death. All sides are then the losers in a quest for a greater rationality including nature lovers.

        If we who use photography as a means of explanation (we, of course reject the role of photographer) are to resist being absorbed in today's meaningless torrent of images they must be accompanied by a text which, in the last analysis, gives them their coherence. As Walter Benjamin rather extravagantly said: 'The illiteracy of the future' someone has said (actually Benjamin!)  'will be ignorance not of reading and writing but of photography. But must not a photographer who cannot read his own pictures be no less accounted as illiterate.' Will not the caption become the most important part of the photograph' (A Small History of Photography 1931). This lengthy conclusion is not just an excuse to work things out better but seeks to question everything. That is its purpose and the accompanying photos are part of that purpose.

 

                                           David and Stuart Wise. Autumn 2001.