Country diary: lured by a love for elusive butterflies

Isle of Portland, Dorset: I’m supposed to be down in the cove, but the dance of this powdery pair is leading me astray

I’ve climbed higher than I intended, lured up the cliff path by flurries of chalk hill blue butterflies, skittish pied pipers with an infuriating habit of dipping as though they are going to land, only to rise again and disappear over the next ridge. Below me, I can hear faint laughter as my children search for ammonites among the rocks in Church Ope Cove.

Stopping to catch my breath, I spot a pair of six-spot burnet moths mating on a small scabious flower. Lizards dart in and out of the limestone crevices and tiny snails dot the vegetation, some resembling miniature cream horns, others reminding me of danish pastry swirls. One has a sheen like freshly glazed ganache that wouldn’t look out of place in the window of a French patisserie.

The path leads up to a south-facing slope where the chalk hill blues gather. It is encouraging to see them here in such numbers. Butterfly Conservation is concerned that the range of this chalk and limestone grassland specialist has decreased across Dorset, but they still appear to be thriving around Portland’s cliffs and quarries.

A male chalk hill blue butterfly
A male chalk hill blue butterfly. Photograph: Nic Wilson

Just ahead of me, a pristine male alights on the golden head of a carline thistle and opens its powder-blue wings to bask in the sun. It could have flown straight out of a child’s pastel drawing with an iridescent patina that looks like it would wash clean in the first rain shower – fleeting beauty on an already ephemeral host.

These landslip-prone cliffs seem a fitting place to reflect on transience and the brevity of life. The grassy banks shimmer with chalk hill blues, flying low over salad burnet, bird’s-foot trefoil and horseshoe vetch (their sole larval food plant), all obeying the instinctive urge to find a mate before their time runs out.

The male on the thistle flicks into the air to join the dance, pairing with a chocolate brown female in a flighty pas de deux. After a moment she retreats to a burnet seed head, seemingly unimpressed by his antics. I ought to follow her example and return to the cove, but the temptation to keep climbing is too strong. Just another minute, a little higher, a few more chalk hill blues.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Nic Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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