Three of the wild loves in my life are otters, dormice and butterflies. I could be accused of being seduced by the charismatic but, in my defence, they are all indicators of healthy ecosystems, and, when your main focus is public engagement, it helps to start with something that most people care about.
Some of my happiest days are spent volunteering at a local butterfly house. I never tire of seeing the wonder on children’s faces when butterflies land on them, or flash their vivid warning colouration within a few inches of their noses. Sometimes visitors are able to watch the emergence of a new butterfly, or a caterpillar shrugging off its final skin to reveal the chrysalis beneath, and there are nearly always a number of different caterpillars and eggs to hunt for.
Those who linger can witness a whole range of butterfly behaviour, from feeding and territorial battles, to courtship, mating, and egg laying. An invertebrate post watershed soap opera!
The butterfly house is rather like a swan, the beauty and serenity on the surface hides a fair amount of paddling underneath. Before the opening in April a huge amount of work goes on behind the scenes. The building is given a wash and brush up, plants are pruned and transplanted, borders are weeded, and countless leaves are sponged clean to remove mealybugs, scale insects and sooty mould.
A week or so before opening the first pupae arrive. One of my favourite jobs is sticking them onto rods ready to hang in a special glass fronted case called a puparium. Some of the pupae, or chrysalises, are extraordinarily beautiful. Every time I open a new polystyrene box, and peel back the cotton wool inside to reveal the contents, it feels a bit like Christmas.
My hope, and that of the owner, is that our visitors will be so inspired by what they see that they take a fresh look at our beautiful native butterflies, and that, maybe for some, it will lead to a lifelong passion for the natural world.