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The swallowtail that made my summer

PUBLISHED: 11:39 29 May 2018

Swallowtail

Swallowtail

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Wild in Anglia: Nigel Pickover goes in search of one of Norfolk’s greatest nature treasures... the swallowtail butterfly.

Careful management of the broads environment has allowed plants which swallowtails thrive on to take hold. Picture: Nigel PickoverCareful management of the broads environment has allowed plants which swallowtails thrive on to take hold. Picture: Nigel Pickover

Pathways and tracks enticed me onwards through this most special of places.

The sun shone, Cetti’s warblers trilled their happy tunes from budding bushes and spring-green reedbeds and wild flowers and grasses sent their combined heady fragrance on to a spring breeze.

You could almost bottle the anticipation that this time of year brings!

And it wasn’t just animals and insects that were full of the joys of late May.

Tripod at the ready, a photographer and his friends spot a swallowtail butterfly across a Strumpshaw field. Picture: Nigel PickoverTripod at the ready, a photographer and his friends spot a swallowtail butterfly across a Strumpshaw field. Picture: Nigel Pickover

Excitedly, I was at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, a delightful part of the river Yare/Broads system near Norwich, hoping to conclude a quest which had lasted most of a decade.

I’ve tried to see swallowtail butterflies many times before - and failed each time.

So could this this year be any different? The omens, based on weather and sightings, were good, even if my track record was not.

So there I was at Strumpshaw, morning sun rising the temperature to the critical mid-teens Centigrade mark,

At last! Across a field and through the eye of a metal mesh fence, a sighting of the swallowtail. Picture: Nigel PickoverAt last! Across a field and through the eye of a metal mesh fence, a sighting of the swallowtail. Picture: Nigel Pickover

along with three score visitors who had also ‘answered the call’ to see a swallowtail, aka Papilio machaon britannicus.

Where milk parsley grows in Norfolk fen and broad land you have a chance of spotting these big, exquisitely colourful, insects.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Hickling or Ranworth Broads are other likely locations.

Careful management of habitat has seen reed and sedge beds cut back to allow milk parsley, on which eggs are laid, to flourish.

But the reeds are not the only enemy to swallowtail happiness.

Too much salt in underlying water levels, from tidal surges, or too little fresh water, from massive river abstraction as thousands of new homes are built, are other major threats.

So there I was, eyes darting left and right, to catch my first glimpse.

Tinkers’ Lane was a likely place, I was told and there I met a slightly excited individual who said he had been following two swallowtails only moments ago.

Onward I pushed, down little lanes, paths and bridleways. Over the Norwich to Lowestoft railway line, taking great care as always.

A plump or pregnant common lizard held ground as it basked on a boardwalk.

A posing dragonfly held my interest, as did a dozen ducklings. The place was alive - but still no special flutterby.

The hours had passed and it was time for more glorious failure as I returned to the car, promising more returns.

On Tinkers’ Lane, the ‘wild’ man had taken his frantic gallop into the distance.

A group of hardy ‘spotters’ were encamped in a nettle patch, a good spot according to those who know.

And then I spotted a man with a tripod, camera atop clicking furiously - and knew my luck was about to change.

For there, 30 yards across a garden-cum-meadow, was my quarry!

A swallowtail was dancing busily in a clump of aubretia as it sucked nectar during this part of its life cycle.

I managed to both enjoy the experience and grab a long-distance shot to show to anyone who might be interested.

Joy of joys at a quest completed - but maybe not quite.

Now I’m looking forward to a future visit - and an even more close-up encounter with one of Norfolk’s most treasured wildlife species.

Swallowtail butterflies, in hundreds of varieties, are found around the world, but Norfolk’s is unique to the county. Strumpshaw Fen is part of the mid-Yare Valley chain along with Surlingham, Rockland, Buckenham and Cantley. The valley protects a mosaic of wetland habitats which is home to rare bird species including bitterns.

More information via www.rspb.org.uk


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