13 Mar 2018
Written for Paperback
I suspect many people who read the title of this book will assume it covers a sample of the butterflies of Britain and Northern Europe. Furthermore, there may be an assumption that it will be mainly a selection of the more common species that the author has experience of and has been able to source good images for. This book is actually far more useful than these general assumptions. As stated inside the book, it covers ‘all of the resident or regular migrant butterflies to Britain, Ireland, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. I hope that in a future edition the front cover or if not at least the back cover makes this explicit. It may be even worth adding to the cover text that it also covers ‘and almost all the species likely to be seen in Northern France, Germany and Poland’.
Viewed this way, this book attains new potency. A lightweight, well written and well-illustrated pocket photographic guide which provides near complete coverage in 14 European countries plus Northern France. This is magic. This means birders and other wildlife enthusiasts flying out of the UK for example on a summer excursion to the non-Mediterranean parts of Europe can have a single book. One that is lightweight and small enough for the single free cabin bag offered by the budget airlines (i.e. without the charge for checked in luggage). I have already taken this book in my field bag on the free guided nature walks in London organised by the London Natural History Society as well as on family long weekends in the Netherlands and Germany.
For its size, the books packs in a lot of content and geographical coverage. The 23 pages preceding the species accounts contains good accounts of butterfly ecology, habitats, conservation etc. The section on distribution is especially interesting for anyone keen on biogeography and understanding the presence or absence of species across a larger geographical area other than their own country of residence. Ted Benton is as an author of considerable repute in entomological circles. Despite his scientific credentials, the text in this book is written to be accessible to a popular audience. It will help more people to understand some of the issues of ecology and conservation. It may also encourage people to take membership in some of the organisations listed. For those who get the butterfly bug, there is a list of further reading in the end sections, with some useful comments. I particularly liked his comment on the ‘Butterflies of Britain and Ireland’ by Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington, ‘Can’t be praised enough: it has everything’. A comment I would endorse.
The species accounts are preceded by a family description. These are a useful and concise introduction. They will be especially useful to beginners who have to make sense of the bewildering variety of species within one family in a group of animals where the general body shape is near identical. For comparison with birds, ducks, storks and waders have characteristically different body shapes and it becomes easier to learn as to which family a bird belongs. This is not the case with butterflies where to the uncritical eye they appear to be similar in structure. The family descriptions will be useful to beginners as it helps to ‘organise’ in one’s mind how some of the many seemingly similar (and in some cases dissimilar) species fall into smaller taxonomic groups. For example, the large family of Lycaenids (also referred to as the blues) are broken into the three groups of hairstreaks, coppers and blues. The Nymphalids break out into a group of emperors/admirals/tortoiseshells and another group, the fritillaries. Even for people who have been butterfly watchers for some time, having these distinctions articulated will help to reinforce ideas learnt through an osmotic process.
The size and shape of the book may lend the notion that this is a pocket photographic guide aimed largely at identification and with very little else. However, appearances can be deceptive. With many species having a full page allocated to it, there is a surprising amount of information that is packed into the available word count on a page. In fact, some of the text is just as good for an armchair read. In the account of the Large Blue you can learn how the chrysalis ‘sings’ to the ants with which it has an association. This is also touched on in the family descriptions. If you have wondered why you have not seen a White-letter Hairstreak it is partly because its range in Britain has seriously contracted since the 1970s because of Dutch Elm disease. Also, partially because it spends most of its time feeding on honeydew in the canopy and only rarely descending in some years to feed on creeping thistle or bramble. Orange Tip caterpillars are cannibals. Only one egg is laid on a plant, not to prevent the siblings cannibalising each other, but to ensure there is enough food for each one. Males of the Small Heath gather in leks to attract females. I could go on. Wherever you thumb through to, the book has fascinating nuggets of information. Ideal to kill time if you are sitting on a train or plane.
Given its wide coverage of species, utility for identification (with most species having multiple images) and portability, I wonder why I don’t see more people using this book in the field. I suspect adding distribution maps to make it easier to see if a species is found in a given country may help the book to gain more traction. Also, reinforcing that it covers all the regular species to many countries, and perhaps as mentioned before driving home the point on the front or back cover. To be honest, when I first received this book, I wondered why I would need another European butterfly book. But I can see that will be my go-to book on local and overseas field trips leaving the bigger books at home for more detailed reference.
It is spring as I write this and I am looking forward to carrying this in my field bag when I go out in the coming summer to photograph butterflies. When I am next photographing Orange Tips egg laying at RSPB Rye Meads (a wonderful nature reserve for Londoners), I will be paying more attention to the act of laying single eggs and on the lookout for the fine young cannibals.
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