A bridleway from the village of Shipley runs past a white wooden windmill that in the grey light of a grey dawn appears forbidding. The well worn path runs down over a slow-moving stream that is the River Adur, on between great old oak and ash trees to emerge on Countryman Lane; a quick dog leg and on to a green lane that runs on south for a mile or so to Hooklands Lane. This we had been advised was a good place for purple emperors; the waymarked trail marked with purple ribbons suggested we were in the right place.
Under clearing skies and a brisk westerly, we work the sunny and sheltered side of the many oaks for purple hairstreaks in the hope that in the process we might also bump into an emperor. Our first attempts in the early morning met with limited success as the hairstreaks stayed high in the trees with just occasional brief and rapid flights. The emperors are according to the experts much diminished in numbers this year following periods of high winds, which have literally knocked them from their perches high in the oaks.
The green lane is soon busy with walkers and cyclists so we worked the east side of some tall oaks within a field of rampant bramble and patches of acid grassland. Here, we find what we think is female purple emperor spiralling round the trunk of a dying oak in a beautiful gliding flight until she settles on the underside of a limb and proceeds to siphon the sap. A hornet arrives and chases her off after a minute of belligerent altercation.
The empress returns to the trunk from a perch on the end of the oak and settles on the main trunk, and then again but lower down. After a time, she leaves and settles nearby on a sallow; joined briefly by a resting purple hairstreak.
The empress then flies high into the great oaks and while searching for it we come across a tree buzzing with hairstreaks with many on the lowest branches. None ever fully open their wings, perhaps because they are jostled and bounced by the wind.
We walk back along paths adjacent to the green lane, where we meet another equally impressive ‘Empress’ sheltering in the shade of an oak; in the field there is another fine Tamworth sow grazing quietly with her well grown piglets.
The scrub is full of other common butterflies including an occasional holly blue and the first gatekeepers. Linnets are breeding in the bramble as well as bullfinches and yellowhammers. The wood pasture looks to be the perfect habitat for honey buzzards but there is only a common buzzard in the air. The sound of jays and green woodpeckers from the woodland are briefly accompanied by a ‘purring’ turtle dove.