Living in countryside with no living dwelling within sight of our cottage makes for an interesting life. Day and night we are presented with an array of insects. My favourite book as a child was ‘My Family and Other Animals’ by Gerald Durrell. The closest I got to his collection of every living thing he could bring to study when he was a boy, was tadpoles in a bowl outside and my caterpillar ‘house’ which I constructed out of a box and a sheet of glass to prevent their escape. My mother did try and rescue injured birds and she brought them indoors, but nothing else was allowed over the threshold.
Each day I am confronted with the ground I walk on knowing it was once the floor of the Iapetus Ocean. I cannot help but think of how ancient it is. I want to know how ancient are the creatures which inhabit the landscape.
I am a novice about so many matters but the Internet and books help me try and understand what I am seeing around me. I have learned the evolution of insects dates back to the Devonian period, and this Neolithic Period reminds me of a notice not far from where we live which points to the ‘Neolithic Route’. I have never had the chance to follow it, but one day I will.
The National Geographic tells me
When the Devonian period dawned about 416 million years ago the planet was changing its appearance. The great supercontinent of Gondwana was headed steadily northward, away from the South Pole, and a second supercontinent began to form that straddled the Equator. Known as Euramerica, or Laurussia, it was created by the coming together of parts of North America, northern Europe, Russia, and Greenland.
Red-colored sediments, generated when North America collided with Europe, give the Devonian its name, as these distinguishing rocks were first studied in Devon, England.
The Devonian, part of the Paleozoic era, is otherwise known as the Age of Fishes, as it spawned a remarkable variety of fish.
Apparently, the oldest definitive insect fossil is the Rhyniognatha hirsti, thought to be living around 407 to 396 million years ago. Maybe fossils of it lie beneath my feet but I would never know.
Whilst the UK has suffered the wettest summer since records began in 1912, there have also been soaring temperatures which led to mosquitos infecting penguins in London Zoo, killing 7 of them. These extremes, including early frosts then great heat, followed by heavy rain, have hit fledgling birds and insects. The slugs and snails have done well, and in Scotland there are 77 species of land snail.
During major radiation periods in the Carboniferous and Permian periods, winged insects or Pterygotes and their subclass Endopterygota (those which progress through larval, pupal, and adult stages) almost died out. Somehow a few survived until they evolved in the Triassic to become what we see today. The Triassic extended from about 250 to 200 million years ago.
Insects diversified in a relatively brief 100 million years. In Scotland alone there are around 14,000 species. Perhaps our human species will also nearly all die as climate change ravages our planet. It is possible that a few humans will survive and maybe evolve like the insects of the past.
The conifers, mosses, flowering plants, insects, mollusks, birds and mammals I see around me look much the same as they did during the Pleistocene, the time period that spanned from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago. The mammoths, longhorned bison, saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, and many other large mammals became extinct, but no-one really knows why.
Many species of butterfly are in decline in the UK, but wildlife is being driven northwards. Butterflies are recognised as sensitive indicators of environmental change, including climate change, and of the health of the countryside. By recording butterflies and moths it is possible to plot movements of those who seek cooler or those who seek hotter temperatures. The Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Marsh Fritillary and Chequered Skipper, which are becoming rare in the rest of the UK, are moving north into Scotland in response to climate change.
This year was my first as a member of Butterfly Conservation. I had never been able to confidently identify the range of butterflies I was seeing, and certainly never knew about moths. The dreadful weather has harmed their breeding and numbers are drastically down for sightings around the UK. But I was rewarded for my sightings, such as they were, being told no-one has ever reported from the remote location in which we live.
I never saw the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Marsh Fritillary and Chequered Skipper. So I wondered why not. It seems all butterflies seek out particular grasses and wildflowers and are sensitive to types of environment. Agricultural methods have gradually destroyed many of these habitats.
By trying to find the wildflowers each butterfly required I realised how poor my knowledge was of the phenomenal range which grew in my environment and I have only begun to spot them growing. Then I have had to be sure of identifying them correctly. Here are an example of what these three butterflies, recently having moved to Scotland, have been said to require:
The Pearl-bordered Fritillary caterpillar only lives on violets and as a butterfly needs edges, or open spaces within, south-facing woodlands with a mosaic of light bracken and, more particularly it must have Bugle, a small plant that produces a ring of blue flowers on top of each set of leaves. This is the most rapidly declining butterfly in the UK.
Marsh Fritillary requires Devil’s Bit Scabious which also attracts Tortoishells and Red Admiral. Currently the Marsh Fritillary has only found ideal conditions in Scotland in south Lochaber, Argyll and the Argyll Islands. The Chequered Skipper.
Chequered Skipper is confined to north-west Scotland where it was first discovered in 1942, and where its distribution is centred on Fort William and where the larval foodplant is Purple Moor-grass. First, this grass is not purple, though its flower heads are a pale purple.
The same applies to Moths. I had never taken in these equally wonderfully marked and colourful insects. Where had I been? Now I was seeing them everywhere and photographing them and asking a contact at Butterfly Conservation to tell me their names. Then I had another shock. Their names were so special too. `Beautiful Golden Y’ was the first I spotted. Then there was a number of them all appearing the same month (July). Silver Y, Gold Spangle, Clouded Bordered Brindle, Silver Ground Carpet, Small Magpie, Gold Spot.
There are thick growths of nettles around the garden and this is where most of the caterpillars develop until they become moths or butterflies. The Silver Y moth and the Red Admiral butterfly had their last feeds in early October from the flowers of my Autumn Glory sedum before they set off for warmer climes in the Mediterranean. The Peacock Butterfly did the same but will hibernate despite the bitterly cold winters we usually get here. The Small Tortoishell was drinking up the nectar too before going to southern areas of England.
It is easy to destroy nettle beds thinking it will improve the garden, but I realise through Butterfly Conservation that they are hugely important to many moths and butterflies as a vital habitat and for other wildlife too.
In the Bronze Age burial grounds fabric woven from nettle has been found.
An old Scots rhyme about the nettle offering advice to harvest nettles first thing in the morning and to cut them back hard:
“Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle, stoo the nettle
Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle early
Coo it laich, coo it sune, coo it in the month o’ June
Stoo it ere it’s in the bloom, coo the nettle early
Coo it by the auld wa’s, coo it where the sun ne’er fa’s
Stoo it when the day daws, coo the nettle early.”
(Old Wives Lore for Gardeners, M & B Boland)
The many uses for nettles, such as a herbal tea or for medicinal purposes, explains why they grow so prolifically close to remote cottages and bothys. In the race to have manicured gardens, people destroy them with weed killer and destroy the wildlife which depends on them at the same time. The food chain is constantly being damaged by ludicrous ideas of radical gardening and farming methods until we find our own food supply is no longer secure or plentiful.
The nettles are dying down now and have been about 5ft high around the garden. We have had a poor weather year and I have seen battered butterflies struggling to survive. Wintry weather is already creeping in despite it being Autumn. I wonder if insects will have been so beaten up that it will be a few years before they recover. Or will the weather remain poor for the foreseeable future? Who knows? Perhaps we all have more adapting to do if climate change continues to shock us with extreme weather (as is very likely).