Between 9.15 am and 7.07 pm on 24 June I counted precisely 300 Purple Emperors (only six of which were female) on the Knepp Wildland, spending a fabulous day in the company of Matthew Oates and Paul Fosterjohn. Many thanks to Matthew for helping tease out the remaining two (which took the final hour), when he would probably have rather had his feet in a bath of warm salty water; it had to be done.
Why were we so determined to make 300, when 298 is enough for anyone? The achievement of such a ridiculously large total demonstrates very clearly that a species which many would consider as rare, can in fact be rather common, if only we were to treat at least larger areas of our countryside in a more sympathetic manner.
The Purple Emperor is, in reality, widespread in West Sussex, but its numbers are so heavily suppressed by tidiness that we perceive it as a habitat specialist of mature, healthy woodlands. Knepp is teaching us a great deal, not least that this is a species which thrives in sallow scrub and flies freely along unflailed hedgerows. Our skewed perception is based on a landscape which has become so degraded that we now set the bar very low.
The Purple Emperor is just one of many high profile species which tell a similar tale, but these represent just the tip of the iceberg. It is already easy to forget that this was traditionally farmed land fewer than 20 years ago. Mother Nature can heal very quickly when allowed; we need more Knepps, as soon as possible.