Caught by the River

Searching for the Silver Studded Blue

Sue Brooks | 31st August 2014

Great orme July 2014 064

Sue Brooks recollects her pilgrimage to the north coast of Wales to locate the butterfly colony of the rare Silver Studded Blue.

Things happen and we tell ourselves stories about them. This is the one about the Great Orme and the Silver Studded Blue.

In January I noted in my new 2014 diary for the week commencing June 16th, a description I had read somewhere of a day trip to the Great Orme. Train to Llandudno Station. Last 10 days of June. Kissing gate at the S. end of Marine Drive. Footpath. Silver Studded Blue. I wanted to make that trip. I could see myself walking out of Llandudno Station, along the promenade, the hotels and bed-and-breakfasts on Marine Drive coming to an end, the kissing gate opening onto the vastness of Great Orme’s Head, the tiny butterflies at my feet. I never lost sight of it.

Winter passed, and Spring. Circumstances changed. It was the first week in July before I could get away, and I knew this butterfly was on the wing for only a very short period: I would be seeing rather worn and faded adults if I saw any at all. And the weather forecast was terrible. I decided on the camper van rather than the train. On July 4th, I slept in a field five miles south of the Great Orme and in the morning opened my 1984 O.S. map of N. Wales. It showed the Orme as a dog’s head with mouth slightly open towards the north west, a grey/brown head with Llandudno clustered around the neck and shoulders. Apart from the note in the diary and the map, I had no other information. I prefer it that way. It is possible to make a phone call, and be given exact coordinates for the most recent sightings, but it would feel like tourism. I would rather be open to chance and operate on a hunch, like the best detectives.

A strong north westerly was driving whitecaps across Llandudno Bay. There was no sign of Marine Drive. I followed the directions for the Great Orme and stopped at the Toll Gate. The van was the only vehicle. The Gatekeeper stepped into the sunshine. “Oh yes, I’ve seen lots of butterflies. They like the flowers.” He was looking at the red Valerian and yellow flowering succulent cascading over the wall. Two orange Fritillaries glided onto the Valerian, the largest and most voluptuous of the Fritillaries, the Dark Green, which I had never seen before. The female nonchalantly closed its wings, showing the green flush on the hind wing, and slowly opened them again, pressing flat against the flowerhead in a seductive pose. A Red Admiral warmed itself on the white painted “L” on the noticeboard. “Have you seen any small blue ones?” He nodded as he gave me a ticket. “They like the yellow flowers.”

I rejoiced in this meeting. I doubted the blue butterfly would be feeding on the showy flowers opposite his doorway. They favoured small flowers growing in short grasses – Rock Rose and Bird’s Foot Trefoil – but I felt I was on the right track. Instead of driving along the toll road, I parked a few feet beyond the gatehouse and took my first few steps on the Great Orme. The steep shoulder of the rock on my left was green dotted with yellow, stretching ahead into the violet blue of the Atlantic. A fragment of alien colour caught my eye, as if sunlight had picked up a piece of glass.

I keep re-running the memory of what followed, trying to slow it down. I wanted to have my wish granted, but later, at the end of the day after fruitless searching. This was too soon, too easy. Perversely it seemed, despite all my non-preparations, I had been guided to the exact spot.

It happened. A woman with fast-beating heart crossed the road and bent low over a Silver Studded Blue butterfly. It clung to a blade of grass and did not move. At 10:00am the temperature was not yet warm enough for flight. By some miracle I was in the right place for a moment of supreme intimacy. I could clearly see the metallic centres in the black eye spots, unique to this butterfly – more blue than silver, except when they catch the light – and the blue dusting close to the body. I reached out to touch it. It stirred a little but did not open its wings. I placed a finger beside the forelegs and obligingly it crawled into my palm. I held my breath. I kept my hand low in the grasses and we remained there until I could hold my breath no longer. Perhaps I warmed the air a little, because there was a fluttering of pale blue wings and it launched itself sideways along the bank. I did not disturb it again. With closed wings it was no larger than my fingernail; in flight, the size of my thumbnail.

As I stood up a man was beside me. He was casually dressed for walking, without binoculars or backpack. It was his weekly circumlocution of the Orme from his home across the Bay. He was recently retired and in the first flush of gratitude and delight, matching my mood perfectly. We looked at the photos of the Silver Studded Blue in my pocket Guide. “Yes, I’ve seen those, but not here. On the other side of the rock.” “Is there a kissing gate?” “ ‘m not sure. There are memorial benches. The path leads up from West Beach.” He beamed at me. I watched him walk off on his six mile trek, a profoundly happy man.

For two or three hours I roamed the short turf and its abundant flowers and butterflies without seeing another Silver Studded Blue. In the late afternoon I reached the other end of the toll road and parked. I looked back at the Great Orme from West Beach. There seemed to be a procession of ants moving diagonally across its exposed flank. Through the binoculars they became people, in ones and twos passing in front of a row of benches. The path disappeared behind a wall at its lower end, and here, ten minutes later, I found the Kissing Gate, the entrance to the outer reaches of a colony of Silver Studded Blue so well-established and well-known that no-one was taking the slightest notice of them. Except me, entranced in the sunshine, staring until my eyes ached at the tiny scraps of pale cerulean blue with white fringes: the females a darker more iridescent blue, merging to brown at the edges with a neat border of orange crescents: the males, some very tattered but still vying with each other unless a female came close, fluttering enticingly. Often two or three would feed together on bramble flowers, opening and closing their wings. Blue. Silver. Blue. Brown. Silver. They roost communally, which would be all silver in the moonlight.

Although the Silver Studded Blue is a rare butterfly in the UK, confined to a few sites in Dorset, Hampshire and North Wales, this colony, recognised as a subspecies in 1937, (Plebeius argus caernensis) is seen as stable. Abundant larval food plant (Rock Rose) and grasses kept short by grazing are partly responsible, but there is another as yet unseen character in the story: Lasius alienus, the Black Ant. The female butterfly detects the pheromones of the ant and lays her eggs nearby at the base of a larval food plant. Black Ants love honeydew, and both larvae and pupae of the Silver Studded Blue have evolved to provide it. Once they have been given an ant home, they can be milked. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, but not a dependent one. Both can survive without it, but in the case of the butterfly, the protection from predators and adverse weather conditions gives them a huge advantage. The books describe it somewhat reverently – Adult larvae pupate in ants’ nests into which they are ushered by attending ants. (Collins Butterflies of Britain and Europe 1996. Tolman and Lewington.) and in one of Butterfly Conservation’s Factsheetsthe ants probably pick up the larvae soon after hatching and place them in ant chambers beneath rocks or stones. They pupate within or close to ants nests where they are tended until the adults emerge. It is a delicate and lovely thing to contemplate: the procession of ants visiting the chamber, the elite attendants drinking the milk of paradise. So successful is this relationship that every year vast numbers take to the wing on the south side of the Great Orme in the last weeks of June. Of the handful beside the Gatehouse more than a mile away to the north east, I have no idea.

I wish them well.