I should start with a confession. I am the author of volume 11 in the British Wildlife Collection, and the owner of several others in the series. Therefore, read into this glowing review what you will. The book, indeed the series in general, is really excellent – well written, well-presented, and well-illustrated. After a lifetime researching British butterflies, much of it spent with Butterfly Conservation where he ended up as chief executive, it is not at all surprising that Martin Warren’s highly readable volume slots precisely and seamlessly into this authoritative and informative stable.
There is no need for another butterfly identification guide, and this is not one; nowadays entomology is heading in the direction of ecological understanding, conservation, and public awareness of an environment on the edge of catastrophe: butterflies are prime flagship material in this undertaking. It turns out there are two sorts of butterfly in the British Isles – those common or garden species which are common in gardens (or indeed anywhere), and those that are rapidly disappearing because their specialist habitat requirements are no longer being met as habitats are no longer being managed sufficiently well for them. As a boy in the late 1960s I remember seeing High brown fritillaries on the Ashdown Forest sandstone ridge through East Sussex. No longer. This is now the most declined butterfly in Britain – 96% loss in its distribution since 1976 – and an imminent candidate for extinction here unless its fall can be halted. Not far behind, the similarly once widespread Pearl-bordered fritillary (I used to see it in Abbot’s Wood back in the day) is also in ecological free-fall. Even the Wall, once so common it was prosaically named after the brickwork on which it frequently sunbathed, has gone from vast portions of its former range; I’ve seen just a handful in the last three or four decades.
But fear not, the book is not all doom and gloom and there are success stories to warm the faltering heart – the reintroduction of the Large blue, reversal of Heath fritillary population crashes, and careful management and inoculation of new sites with Duke of Burgundy. These are tentative steps towards a better countryside and as Warren weaves his personal and scientific tales of mystery and discovery it is easy to see why butterflies have captivated the eye and enlivened the spirit of entomologists down the ages. Several centuries of close observation and a truly vast literature on them has made British butterflies amongst the most studied and documented group of creatures on the planet, but there is still so much we don’t know about them. Warren’s book is as much about the broad gaps in our knowledge, as the swathe of facts we do know. Read it and begin to understand that there is really only one sort of butterfly in this country – one that offers a measure of the environment’s pulse – one we need to look at with a fresh eye.