This afternoon I led a party of 20 on a tour round the Knepp wildlands, which now supports a Purple Emperor population that threatens to rival mighty Fermyn. That's quite an achievement as iris was only discovered here in 2009, in modest numbers, though it must have had some vague presence before then.
The wildlands consist of 3000 acres of land on heavy Wealden Clay that were taken out of conventional agriculture (intensive dairy and arable) in the early naughties by an enlightened landowner, Charlie Burrell, and are now extensively grazed by herds of long-horn cattle and Red & Fallow Deer, plus a few Exmoor ponies and Tamworth pigs, free-ranging within three huge compartments (the largest of which is 1100 acres).
Sallow seed rained down on many of the ex-arable fields, giving rise to huge jungles of sallow scrub. The sallow jungle interiors look like this -
The sallow jungles look like this (this one borders a small copse) -
Here, the Emperor is essentially a butterfly of scrubland and hedgerow oaks. The males fly low over the sallow jungles in search of females, or patrol the edges of tall oaks that border the old fields, or establish territories in these hedgerow oaks, perching like this -
All told, we saw 31 in three hours of rather indifferent weather, though the sun did come through nicely late on. At one point we saw four males in a vista. Knepp is a rather exposed site, not offering the amount of shelter one finds in true woodland, and the Emperors congregate in areas out of the wind - like many other butterflies they are rather wind distributed. We only saw two females, as it wasn't quite warm or bright enough for Herself. One of these females was accosted by a male who refused to take No I'm washing my hair tonight for an answer, gunned her down on to a sallow leaf and almost successfully coupled with her - before she skuttled off. We also heard several Turtle Doves and saw Purple and White-letter Hairstreaks. More tomorrow...