Scholars of Tove Jansson’s  Finn Family Moomintroll, a tale for the young at heart, will be aware of the significance of the first butterfly of the year.  At the end of Chapter 1 Jansson writes: ‘And suddenly they caught sight of the first butterfly.  (As everyone knows, if the first butterfly you see is yellow the summer will be  a happy one.  If it is white then you will just have a quiet summer.  Black and brown butterflies should never be talked about…’.  Variations of this saying seem to be fairly widespread in northern European countries. 

The bad news is that there seems to be some truth in it, which means that an awful lot depends on opening one’s account with a male Brimstone and avoiding the somber Peacock and Red Admiral.  For 40 years I have assiduously sought my first butterfly of the year, and have gained a good run of data.  Analysis shows, not so much that good-weather summers are heralded by the Brimstone, for on a couple of occasions Brimstones have ushered in rather poor summers (only I was a relatively happy person during these), but that Peacocks and Red Admirals are early warning systems for bad summers.  And of course butterfly enthusiasts live for spring and summer.   The worst butterfly seasons in my 40 years have all been ushered in by Peacocks or Red Admirals. 

Until 2001 I had only once started off with a Red Admiral, in the despicability that was 1977.  But the Red Admiral has opened the year for me five times since 2000.  This is due in part to an apparent increase in successful overwintering by what was primarily an immigrant insect to the UK, but also because I have become more office-bound and Red Admirals seem to hibernate more successfully in towns and cities.  Moreover, the Red Admiral seems to have a lower temperature threshold for activity than our other over-wintering butterflies, certainly lower than the Brimstone than seems to require a minimum of 12C for activity.  In consequence, I have been avoiding looking for butterflies along the warm south-facing edges of buildings these last few weeks.  This is my 50th year of butterflying, it has to be a cracker and must be opened by a Brimstone, Comma or even a Small Tortoiseshell – If my year starts with a Red Admiral or a Peacock I’m giving up butterflying and taking up golf.

Another difficulty surrounds the recent decline of the humble Small Tortoiseshell, which on 11 occasions has been my year’s first butterfly.  This species heralds good or reasonable summers, being quite a bright butterfly.  The trouble is that I have only commenced the season with it twice this millennium (it has nose-dived since 1996).  Like the Red Admiral it hibernates a lot in buildings, but the chances of seeing it ahead of a Red Admiral have diminished. 

The female Brimstone I saw on New Year’s Day, hibernating in Savernake Forest, cannot count, as I have been following her in hibernation since mid November, and she wasn’t flying.  She is fine, by the way, despite having been buried by the recent snows.  She is currently resting on a beech leaf trapped at the base of the bramble bush she was originally using.  This is a good move as many of the bramble leaves have been eaten by deer.  Likewise I’ve discounted various Tortoiseshells, Peacocks and even the odd Red Admiral hibernating in roof spaces and the like over the years, and the Small Tortoiseshell seen batting about during a wedding in Christ Church, Winchester. 

Watch this blog for the all-important announcement.  This is what’s required –

Brimstone male, Hailey Wd 10.3.12