Matthew Oates and I led a group of a dozen visitors around the Knepp Castle Estate Wildland today, all keen to see the Purple Emperor. The slow start turned into a very good morning session, before we broke for a leisurely lunch provided by our hosts Charlie and Issy.
However, the real fireworks were reserved for the afternoon. We watched in awe as 4 Purple Emperors (2 being particularly nasty) indulged in the most prolonged and vicious combat that I have ever witnessed. They just wouldn’t let it lie. A pattern soon developed, with a regular cycle of high level chases being punctuated by tumbling, tight turns just above our heads. These butterflies had clearly adopted a Motorhead mentality. By the time we had finished the official tour we had clocked up more than 40 individuals. On the way back to Knepp Safaris HQ we stopped to watch at least 4 White-letter Hairstreaks cavorting around the top of some Elms.
Enough is never enough, so Matthew, Paul Fosterjohn and I headed out again, surveying some new areas and bringing the day’s tally to 54 Purple Emperor. As the sun started to dip towards the horizon the Purple Hairstreaks became more active, and we watched some impressive dogfights between Emperors and up to 7 hairstreaks at a time. The Purple Hairstreak is clearly making a comeback after several poor seasons, and we saw 100+.
There are many ways by which to measure the benefits being brought, sometimes unforeseen, by the innovative rewilding scheme at Knepp, including the unprecedented increases in numbers of Turtle Dove, Cuckoo and Nightingale. But there can be no better measure than the rise and rise of the Purple Emperor. This was meant to be a species of extensive, Oak-rich woodlands, rather than open Sallow scrubland. Lessons such as this confirm the minimal-intervention philosophy at Knepp as one of the most important and exciting developments in conservation in recent years. Perhaps not the golden bullet, but certainly a critically important addition to the armoury.
Aside from viewing these particular species, the clear winners, it is worth visiting Knepp just to view the landscape being created, which increasingly provides a portal back to a time when the British countryside was a much healthier and vibrant place.