Daneway Banks, Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, Cotswolds, July 2014
Figures stalk this tumbling chunk of meadowland. Severe expressions are worn: eyes drawn to-and-fro, either side of the gently worn path. But all they see are the scattered clouds of marbled whites. This is where the wild thyme grows, creeping along the turf, appearing in small spreads on the miniature hillocks of ants. And here you have the reason for all the skulking souls, though some boast of their sightings as they lay flat on their bellies in wildflowers, with camera lenses mounted by donut-shaped flashes large enough to save a life at sea. The wild thyme is the food plant of the large blue butterfly, once extinct but now successfully reintroduced from Swedish stock, this insect depends on the work of red ants taking its pupa into their nests as one of their own. The large blue pupa will then eat the other ant grubs it’s lodging with, eventually destroying the entire colony. To find something that was once extinct is, to many, to contend with the immortal. We haven’t seen it, instead we hear stories of large blues sunning themselves beside gate posts ‘just fifteen minutes ago’. We also hear of the creature’s phased movement, down the hill with the sun’s heat. We meet a softly spoken man making his fifth visit in search of the ghost. He identifies the yellow spike of flowers that is agrimony. He suggests we look it up in my friend’s wildflower guide (one which I tossed, jokingly, into the air out of faux-botanical disgust some minutes ago). There’s much more to see: clustered bellflower, common centaury, yellow wort, pyramidal orchid, lady’s bedstraw (which we shamefully contended ourselves with as golden rod), the simple colours of bird’s-foot-trefoil, and edibles like marjoram and salad burnet.
Rain comes and we leave these meadows of lost souls, leading up into Dorvel Wood. There is that change, the sudden loss of colour, all has become green and brown – leaf and leaf litter. The wood flowers appease the loss of butterflies – the underlying stench of wild garlic, the sight of violets, wood spurge, wood melick and no desire for the unusual. No man can be found here lying in mud and puddle to capture a photograph he can later sell on. But the ash leaves, crinkled, brown – is this ash dieback disease, the greatest threat to British wildlife since Owen Paterson? This was a moment I had expected but had somehow felt to be too far away. The canopy leaves are curling and dying, too. Is this the end for the common ash? We ponder it and tread out of Dorvel Wood, into the beating and blazing meadows of Sapperton.