Ancient woodland is a rare commodity in this 21st century world. It exists only as widely scattered oases in an agricultural desert; a vibrant haven for life when all around is sterile. Even then, its existence is more likely due to circumstantial accident rather than conscious design. We are then rather fortunate here in Norfolk to still be able to enjoy some impressive areas of such interesting and captivating habitat. Even though these fragments are but a shadow of their former glory, they nonetheless afford us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in their history, wildlife and majesty.
On this day, as soon as we step out of the car we are surrounded by butterflies. Even though there is a strong breeze and largely overcast skies, the wide, open rides bordered by sentinel mature oaks provide shelter. The borders of these paths through the wood are just teeming with insect life taking advantage of the profusion of wild flowers that provide colour and sweet scent to a gentle walk. Ringlets, meadow browns, skippers and whites flutter all around; sedentary crickets, ladybirds, spiders and snails require more focussed attention.
But we are here in the hope of catching a glimpse of a rather special insect, one that has been absent from the county for nearly 50 years but is now back, the monarch of the oaks, the purple emperor.
Of course, we are not alone in this quest, several other keen-eyed naturalists are busy craning necks looking at the tops of oak trees for a glimpse of this enigmatic creature. So far nobody had been successful, but everyone has spoken to someone else who has seen them ‘down by the gate’, ‘further along the path’ or more forlornly ‘should have been here last week’. Hope springs eternal in the heart of nature nerds, so undeterred we stroll forth just content with being out in the fresh air.
Shortly, whilst pausing to admire a group of bright orange silver-washed fritillaries tempted forth by a short burst of sunshine, we catch a tantalising glimpse of a butterfly flitting around the top of an oak. It lands, but is partially obscured and too far away for positive identification. We can see white markings on the wings, but white admirals frequent the area and this could be one of those. A small crowd gathers, and slowly consensus is reached that this is indeed a purple emperor and probably the best view we are likely to get on such a day. Well, that will do very nicely thank you; indeed, a real bonus because in truth we don’t expect to connect with the emperor today.
Quite pleased with our luck, we make our way back to the car park for lunch when a movement on the side of a nearby oak attracts our attention. And there, licking sap from a fissure is not one, but a pair of resplendent and quite beautiful purple emperors. One even opens its wings for a second revealing the deep purple sheen that gives the insect its name. Glory be, how fortunate are we? Big smiles, a Covid restricted high five, and with a spring in our step a well-earned lunch for two very satisfied youthful minded, if slightly more maturely framed, chaps. What a morning!
With full stomachs, gathering gloom and the hint (indeed promise) of rain, we ponder what next to do. Buoyed by the morning success we find it hard to leave this place, so elect to give it another hour to see what we can find. To add a little spice, we agree our target species should be purple hairstreak and set about scrutinising every flower head of bramble and thistle to that end. As we approach the oak tree, the site of the morning success, a small insect attracts our attention as it weakly flutters away from us and settles amongst the tangle of grass. Thinking this must be a day flying moth, or a nocturnal one disturbed by our movements, we train binoculars. It’s not easy to make out such a tiny creature amongst thick uniform growth, but there it is clambering along a grass stem and slowly unfolding its wings which reveal themselves to be the richest, almost iridescent purple! Purple hairstreak we cry!
Said insect sitting motionless and in no hurry to move. Hardly believing our luck, we take still and video images to our hearts content whilst the butterfly rests there sheltering from the cooling atmosphere. It should be at the top of an oak tree, yet here it is saying hello at knee height. We feel blessed, as indeed we are. We have to tear ourselves away but vow to return soon to soak up more of what this fascinating site can provide.
Foxley Wood is a credit to NWT, the sense of space produced by the opening up of some of the rides works very well. We encountered more than one family with small children exploring the easily accessible wayside plants for bugs and beetles. It’s still possible to walk along narrower tracks which perhaps allow for a deeper sense of presence of the woodland all around, but altogether the mix succeeds. And with such stunning wildlife on display who could fail to be happy with a walk through this truly ancient and mystical wonderland.