The Butterfly in the Glasshouse

The butterfly fluttered just above, at the point where my eyes struggled to focus on the movement. A large, dark butterfly, a flash of bright red and dots of white; it was a Red Admiral. A butterfly is a strange sight to see when fingers are numb from cold, and sharp needles of frost coat every leaf edge, but inside the greenhouse the sun must have been just warm enough through the glass to disturb this spirit of summer from its winter hibernation. I didn’t see where the Red Admiral came from, and I lost sight of it as I tried to follow its flight over my left shoulder, it seemed to have appeared and vanished again in the thin January air.

I don’t know if a butterfly sighting in the cold dark month of January is deemed prophetic in any way, but I have always associated butterflies with the approach of good things, like warm sun-filled days, fields of buttercups, and eating strawberries and ice-cream. So I am hoping that this unexpected and fleeting butterfly encounter is an omen of a good year to come. I felt like saluting him.

Welcome to my first blog for New Nature. It seems strange to be starting the year with a sighting of a butterfly, but that is nature: always full of surprises. In reality, the butterfly sighting is not unprecedented. I work at a plant nursery and garden centre, and the large glasshouses do occasionally trap unsuspecting insects. This individual had probably come in one damp day in autumn seeking a quiet safe corner in which to hibernate through the winter, and was woken by the magnified sun through the glass creating the false impression of spring.

The nursery is situated on the edge of a small West Sussex village near the heart of the South Downs National Park. I live close by, just a 3-mile walk away. The circle of map around my home and my work forms the basis of my local patch, of which the two main focus points are Stedham with its heathland and the River Rother, and Midhurst where I live and keep an allotment.

Across the main road from my workplace is Iping and Stedham Commons, a lowland heath managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust. Turn left out of the nursery’s entrance and one can walk through the quiet village with its mixed woodland, open greens and hidden gardens, and public footpaths that follow the flow of the River Rother as it serpentines between oaks and alders, its waters patterned by windblown salix (willow) leaves.

1.6-miles away as the crow flies, on the edge of Midhurst, is my allotment. The plot is tucked away alongside several neighbouring plots, beside a quiet fishing lake just off a country lane, in the edge-land between wooded heath, farmland and a residential estate. Here I nurture flowers, vegetables, fruit, and myself. These are my two paradises; one in which to escape the world and one to discover the natural wonders it holds.

When James Common of New Nature Magazine tweeted a request for a weekly nature blog tracking the seasonal changes of the writers’ local patch, I jumped at the chance. It is just the challenge I need to make me look, I mean really look, at what is happening everyday in the natural world all around us.

My local patch offers fantastic scope for wildlife watching, whether it is a short lunchtime stroll in the middle of my busy working day, or a longer adventure at the weekend. Garden, lowland heath, farmland, woodland and riverside provide a network of habitats for countless species of bird, invertebrate, mammal, reptile and amphibian in different seasons, and this patchwork landscape of the western weald at the northern foot of the South Downs, is rich in wildlife. It will be interesting to record how time of year, weather and other factors affect both plant and animal life throughout the next 12 months.

I hope my blogs may inspire you to pause on that walk to the shops to listen to the robin singing at the corner of the car park, or to notice when the spring flowers begin emerging on the bank beside the bus stop. Maybe you will add a regular lunch break walk to your list of New Year resolutions and discover the magic of everyday nature where you live or work. If you do, please join the conversation on social media, there is twice as much joy in nature when it is shared.

So come on, pull on your wellingtons and your hat & gloves, and together we will track the seasons as our local wildlife marks the passing of the year, week by week.

Sophie May is a conservationist with a passion for engaging people with the natural world. Bird watching is where Sophie May’s interest in natural history began, and something that has been part of her life since childhood, but now in her 20’s Sophie May considers herself an all-round naturalist, equally at home crouched in heather watching tiny blue butterflies, as she is stood on the woodland edge with her binoculars.  Based in rural West Sussex, Sophie May finds inspiration for her writing and photography in the landscapes of the South Downs and the Weald, both in their secret histories and their wonderful wildlife.

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