250 years since the first butterfly record in Hampshire

Spotting the first butterfly of the year is an uplifting experience as their colourful appearance heralds the start of warmer weather and new life, with birds nesting and flowers beginning to bloom. This year we are celebrating 250 years since the first butterfly record in Hampshire – Andy Barker from the Butterfly Conservation Trust tells us more…

By virtue of its southerly situation and variety of habitats, Hampshire is without doubt one of the best counties in England to see butterflies. Nowadays, butterfly recording is a popular activity and contributes greatly to our understanding of the state of the environment through monitoring individual species. Modern technology has facilitated greater opportunities for data exchange and analysis, but have you ever wondered when butterfly recording in Hampshire began?

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the first Hampshire butterfly record and, not surprisingly, it was the well-known naturalist Gilbert White who made this record in his home village of Selborne, near Alton. White’s entry for 8 March 1766 in the publication Flora Selborniensis reads; “Saw ye first butterfly, P.sulphureus, a brimstone-coloured one: some people saw several of these, & several that were coloured with black spots; these are I believe, P.urticae”. The butterflies he is referring to are the brimstone and the small tortoiseshell.

If the truth be told, Gilbert White was not particularly interested in butterflies. Birds, plants and the vegetables in his garden were of much greater interest to him. Even so, he was interested in the seasons and changes from one year to the next, so although butterflies are much less mentioned than birds, in most years of his famous Naturalist’s Journal he records the first observed butterflies each year.

It is interesting to note that Gilbert White’s butterfly observations and interests widened following a visit to see his brothers in London in 1767 where he probably saw a copy of The Aurelian by Moses Harris as his brother Benjamin was a dealer in Natural History books. The Aurelian includes 44 beautiful copper-plate engravings depicting 33 known butterflies and many more moths, all hand-coloured. Whether Gilbert White saw this book or not is difficult to be certain, but he certainly seems to have had a reference book on butterflies post-1767 as he made the greatest variety of butterfly records during 1769 and 1770.

So, when you observe your first butterfly of this year, and maybe it will be a brimstone, think back to Gilbert White 250 years ago who was observing the same thing. Hopefully you’ll have the same interest and excitement as he did and, whilst you may record it in your diary, have a go at recording your sighting electronically by submitting your record using Butterfly Conservation’s recording App – butterfly-conservation.org.