South Downs Purple Emperor Butterfly

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I’ve waited 40 years to see one of these…

Today was a very special day for me. Because today I saw a Purple Emperor for the very first time. Which is pretty special, because I’ve been looking for one of these elusive butterflies since I was about ten years old. As a small boy browsing through my Observer’s Book of British Butterflies, the Purple Emperor and the Camberwell Beauty were the butterflies that dreams were made of. And today – after many years of looking – my dream finally came true!

And what a beauty she is. Ok – if ‘she’ was a ‘he’ then you’d really appreciate why these butterflies are called Purple Emperors. But in this era of equality I am absolutely just as excited by seeing the empress. She may not be as bright and colourful as the male but WOW – for me it doesn’t get much better than this!

Purple Emperors are big (the size of a small bird) and are one of the rarest and most elusive butterflies in the UK. They’re sought after by butterfly enthusiasts who gather in large numbers at Purple Emperor ‘hotspots’ in the hope of a rare sighting. The males spend most of their time in the treetops, but dedicated butterfly spotters do their best to tempt them to the ground using lures made of stinking shrimp paste, soiled nappies and decaying bananas. Unlike most butterflies Purple Emperors are quite happy dining on manure, urine and rotting flesh! If you see someone walking around the woods in July or August hanging nappies in trees don’t be alarmed. It really does happen!

And so today I feel enormously privileged to have seen my first Purple Emperor. And surprised too, because I really wasn’t expecting it. I’ve walked the woods around Bepton on The South Downs for the last seven years and never once had an inkling that Purple Emperors might be found here. But there you go! I’ve seen one – let’s hope it won’t be another 40 years until I see my next.

Purple Emperor butterfly old illustration
As a small boy I dreamt of one day seeing a Purple Emperor…

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