Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Paean for Chattenden

Those of you who know your butterflying history will be instantly roused by the name of Chattenden, for Great Chattenden Wood (to give it its full name) was the premier collecting venue for London collectors during the mid to late Victorian era.  In particular, it was the most cherished collecting ground for the Purple Emperor, producing a vast number of specimens and some acute aberrations -

Taken ca 1870, and  -

Taken in July 1878, and described as ab. chattendeni by Heslop; and -

The frontispiece for Frohawk's Variations, taken in 1866. 

Chattenden was the Fermyn of its day.

There are some amazing descriptions of Emperoring at Chattenden, in Frohawk and Tutt.  These are quoted in Heslop (1964).  Tutt (1896) states, 'In the 'seventies' A. iris was the insect of Chattenden Woods'.  He continues that males and females: 'had a custom of flying for a few hours (11am to 3pm) to the highest point of the wood, and soaring around a few oaks that topped the hill.  Here they settled and became easy prey.  With a large ring net on the end of a long hop-pole about twelve or fourteen feet in length ... we have seen as many as nine amateur collectors standing in a line at three or four yards distance, and netting every specimen as it came up ... in one year (1881) alone, some two or three hundred specimens were captured.  Such are the depths to which entomology has been reduced.  Needless to say, the insect is now practically extinct in these woods.'

Frowhawk (1924) writes: 'In Chattenden Woods, Kent, where these butterflies formerly occurred abundantly, the females were in the habit of resorting to the highest ground, the brow of a large hill, on the summit of which were a few oak trees; these were the favourite resort of this species, and large numbers were captured yearly.'  He continues: 'the author has seen freshly emerged specimens pairing on the oaks on the hill' and laments, 'ninety-seven of these butterflies were captured in a few days by two men - a dealer and his friend.'  

Frohawk reckons that iris had disappeared from Chattenden by the end of the 'eighties'.  However, Heslop states that the War Department (MOD), which took over - and cleared - much of the site during WW1, used to issue permits for the collecting of Purple Emperors 'into the twenties of the present century', and also mentions that the butterfly was successfully reintroduced there. 

The MOD land became known as Lodge Hill.  This area - the eastern part of Great Chattenden Wood - is the proposed site of 5,000 new homes, despite it having been designated as an SSSI owing to the presence of a large population of Nightingales.  Interestingly, His Grace the Duke of Burgundy has recently been discovered there. 

I toured Chattenden during the winter of 1976-77 and more recently one dull November day, and felt on both occasions that the site was still suitable for iris.  Lodge Hill is now, apparently, thick with sallows.  Best of all, the butterfly was seen nearby this year. 

Gentlemen, iris is back in Chattenden, though I suspect he may never have left - and a major public inquiry must loam.  Frohawk and Tutt's hill is presumably the prominent hillock at the western end of the surviving wood, above Cliffe - it had that feel about it when I visited. 

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