On a short break to Cornwall at the end of September, Jane and I were not expecting to come across too many butterflies, still less a nationally rare one.
Just a few miles from our rural idyll near Fowey is the village of Lanlivery. There’s a church, a school and a pub which is said to be good for food. There is also a signpost for The Saints’ Way, a 30 mile trail stretching from Padstow on the north coast of Cornwall to Fowey on the south. It apparently follows the route which early pilgrims would have taken from Eire and Wales to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, departing on boats from Fowey Harbour.
Our section followed a minor road out of Lanlivery before branching off up a track which soon became a sunken green lane, bounded by hedgerow. We were delighted to see, even in this late season, plenty of butterflies – Large and Small Whites, Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma and, higher up on Helman Tor, Small Copper but it was just the kind of place you might spot a Cornish Pixie so we kept our eyes peeled.
Although not very high at only 686 ft (209 mtrs) Helman Tor has impressive 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside.
The top of the hill has a weathered rocky outcrop and there is evidence that this was a prehistoric hill fort. There are post holes indicating a hut circle. There is a logan or rocking stone and an ancient cross carved into one of the stones, evidence that pilgrims did once cross this hill.
At the foot of the hill are wetland areas characteristic of tin streaming which creates hummocks and hollows. The whole area is now a Wildlife Trust protected site with Red Moor on the one side and Breney Common on the other. We chose to explore the latter and had great views of a buzzard which lifted off a small wayside tree literally right in front of us. We picnicked among the Dartmoor Ponies which the Wildlife Trust keeps on Grift Common.
But for all these wonderful sights, it was whilst returning on the road to Lanlivery, just above West Pennant Farm that we came, by chance, upon our best sighting. I noticed to our left an orange coloured butterfly which came to rest on a fern leaf. Clearly it was a Tortoiseshell but I instantly knew that it wasn’t the Small Tortoiseshell which you can see flitting about your garden. This was much bigger which could only mean that it was a Large Tortoiseshell. However, that species, once resident in the UK, is now only a rare immigrant. So could we be mistaken? Was it just an oversized Cornish version of the Small.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have either my long lens or my macro lens with me but the butterfly obligingly stayed still long enough for me to get reasonably close and take a few pictures before it took flight.
Aside from the expected difference in size the Small and Large Tortoiseshell are fairly similar in markings so, although I was fairly confident in my identification, I decided to contact the County Butterfly Recorder for Cornwall just to be sure. We were absolutely delighted when she confirmed our sighting, saying ours was the third such record in Cornwall this year but that she had never seen one in years of searching. So perhaps those Cornish Pixies were bringing us some magic.
We returned from Cornwall in a bouyant mood having ticked of a wholly unexpected species in our butterfly book. What a way to end the butterfly season.