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A 250th Celebration of the Hampshire Butterfly

Today at Gilbert White’s House we are celebrating a very special anniversary and the Hampshire Butterfly.

Andy Barker from the Hampshire branch of The Butterfly Conservation tells us more…

By virtue of its southerly situation and variety of habitats, Hampshire is without doubt one of the best counties in England to see butterflies. Nowadays, butterfly recording is a popular activity, and contributes greatly to our knowledge and understanding of the state of the environment through monitoring the changing fortunes of individual species. Modern technological advances have facilitated greater opportunities for data exchange and analysis, but have you ever wondered when butterfly recording in Hampshire originated?
8th March 2016 marks the 250th anniversary of the first Hampshire butterfly record, and not surprisingly it was the well-known and highly regarded early naturalist, Gilbert White, who made this record in his home village of Selborne, near Alton. The entry for 8th March 1766 in the publication Flora Selborniensis reads:

“Saw ye first butterfly, P.sulphureus, a brimstone-coloured one: some people saw several of these, & several that were coloured with black spots; these are I believe, P.urticae”.

The butterflies he is referring to are of course the Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) and, the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae). In Gilbert White’s day, all butterflies had Papilio (P.) as the first part of the scientific binomial, with P.sulphureus clearly referring to a yellow butterfly, and P.urticae being one associated with nettles. We can all recognise these two species, as both are familiar as butterflies that hibernate through the winter and emerge on the first sunny days of Spring. It is an uplifting experience to see the first butterflies of the season as they herald the beginning of warmer weather and new life, with birds nesting, and flowers such as primroses starting to bloom.
If the truth be told, Gilbert White was not particularly interested in butterflies. Birds, plants and the vegetables in his garden were of much greater interest to him. Even so, he was interested in the seasons, and changes from one year to the next, so although butterflies are much less mentioned than birds, in most years of his famous “Naturalist’s Journal”, 1768-1793, he does record the first observed butterflies of each year. Only in 1769 and 1770 did Gilbert White refer to a wide variety of butterflies throughout the year. I assume he was trying to identify as many species as possible, most likely with the aid of a book, although he doesn’t mention a specific text.
It is interesting to note that Gilbert White’s butterfly observations and interests widened following a visit to see his brothers Benjamin and Thomas in London in 1767. He also met Thomas Pennant at this time, and quite probably saw a copy of “The Aurelian” by Moses Harris (published 1766), when he visited his brother Benjamin, who was a dealer in Natural History books. The Aurelian, with 44 beautiful copper-plate engravings depicting 33 known butterflies and many more moths, all hand-coloured, was without doubt one of the most important publication of its time. Whether Gilbert White saw this book or not is difficult to be certain, but he certainly seems to have had a reference book on butterflies post-1767, and as stated above, made the greatest variety of butterfly records in 1769 and 1770.
So, when you observe your first butterfly of this year, 2016, and maybe it will be a Brimstone, think back to Gilbert White, 250 years ago, who was observing the same thing. Hopefully you’ll have the same interest and excitement as he did and, whilst you may record it your diary, you are perhaps equally as likely to record the sighting electronically and submit your record using Butterfly Conservation’s recording App!
A small display to mark the 250th anniversary of butterfly recording in Hampshire, is on show throughout March at the Gilbert White House Museum, Selborne, subject to normal opening times and admission charges.

Hampshire Butterfly