Yesterday I felt like I had stumbled into a convention of 19th century vicars when I joined a purple emperor butterfly safari at Knepp Valley.
This fantastic project is rewilding a 1400 hectare arable and dairy farm, allowing free roaming deer, pigs and longhorn cattle to graze the land and natural process’s to take over the former wheat fields.
This has allowed birds like nightingales and turtle doves to thrive in the newly created areas of scrub and sallow trees to colonise the wetter areas which provides the food plant for purple emperor caterpillars.
The other wildlife to colonise has been a group of madly enthusiastic butterfly hunters and their foot followers.
On a blistering hot Sunday, I joined them, striding out in the footsteps of Matthew Oates bedecked in a purple t-shirt and sun hat bound with a purple scarf and Neil Hulme in moleskin trousers and walking stick. They were helped by Harry, an enthusiastic student in a kilt and green wellies. Only in the rarefied world of lepidopterists would these outfits be seen as perfectly normal.
We passed fields of thistles and spotted purple hairstreaks, smalls coppers and marbled whites but the real quarry was His and Her Imperial Majesties, the purple emperor. A huge butterfly, which is rarely scene as it lives on the tops of oak trees and only descends to feed on dog poo, and fetid fish.
As we reached a stand of shady oaks I became lost in a world of the hopelessly nerdish as we all gazed skywards in hope that this elusive butterfly would grace up with it’s presence.
Matthew Oates and gang seemed like courtiers waiting for ‘Herself’ to make an appearance and regaling us with tales of aerial action they had previously witnessed. However like all good huntsman when the much venerated creature finally appeared, tantalisingly sailing overhead before hiding in the foliage, they pelted it with missiles. Sticks, and lumps of mud were flung into the tree by Neil in an attempt to make the butterfly attack.
Purple emperors, it turns out, are among the world’s most aggressive creatures. Launching floaty winged attacks at anything within reach and can’t resist flapping after any target that comes their way.
The barrage of items failed to get the creature to move however. There was talk of trying out catapults and drones but clearly it was a little too hot for such antics and we moved on.
The estate was split up into areas with names like ‘thug alley’ and ‘muggers pond.’ sites of famous butterfly battles. The gang talked with joy of seeing butterflies ‘de-tit’ trees, a practice in which they drive off gangs of birds who dare to try to perch in their territory.
After a super lunch of local produce and organic cider. We set out again. As the temperature rose so did the amount of butterflies. bat winged emperors, floated among the tree tops, landing on perches seemingly unaware that they were creatures with few defences and a better survival strategy might be to hide. Instead the emperors launch attacks on dragonflies, other butterflies and chaffinches, but mainly they battled with each other.
Matthew, Neil and Harry seemed to never tire of a good battle. ‘fight, fight, fight,’ they yelled from the ground. Reliving their school boy days. Cheery at every good sucker punch of a butterfly wing clipped round an antennae.
Purple emblazoned, kilt wearing, walking stick pointing obsessives of the first order. I marvelled at their enthusiasm. For them every butterfly was a first, every day was a joy, every sighting a little well of happiness. I could not possibly imagine these men stepping foot off the estate and into the modern world. It would eat them alive. But here, in the world of the Knepp Estate, every day was lived in a purple haze.
Purple Emperor Butterfly Safari’s cost £60 for a full day with lunch. Find out more at