21 Aug 2014

21 Aug 14 - The Highs And Lows Of The Swanage Maps - Settling The Record Straight

It has been a very interesting last two weeks. Whilst out photographing Butterflies near Swanage with mates, Brian Arnold & Derek Haynes, we found a Map butterfly on 7 August. The initial feedback was this wasn't a migratory species & therefore would be a released individual. At the time, I was more open-minded, given the Swanage area has a track record of migrant Moths that have established themselves locally, before moving on to colonise other localities in the UK. The following day, I returned to site & was about to photograph the Map, only to realise we were dealing with a second individual: it was a female, whereas the first was a male. Within about 10 minutes we had doubled the number again to 4 & photographic comparison of individuals by the end of the day had increased this to 11 individuals (see my Map mugshot post which includes one unpublished individual I missed on that date). Clearly, something astounding was happening here.
Map: Male Individual A. It was this individual that started everything off (8 Aug)
This clearly made it a very different scenario from 24 hours earlier when they news was released of a lucky find of a lone migrant or a deliberate release. Now there was either a small fledgling colony or a larger deliberate release. Having released the news the previous evening when it was a lone individual, it was too late to reel the story in. All that was left was to try & contain the news to protect the potential fledgling colony. There had also been overnight feedback to support a wild origin, which made it all the more interesting.

We have been criticised on some social media sites for part releasing of the news, then trying to suppress it. However, these critics have failed to appreciate the news was released when only a single individual (of likely suspect origin) was known about. Had we known of the numbers on the first day, then more discussion would have occurred about the pros & cons of a public release of the news. Not releasing the news would have made it easier to protect the Butterflies, whilst discussing with the landowner regarding protection of the site. After all, if this was a small colony of a wild origin, it would be one of the most significant UK Butterfly stories of the last decade or two. I have one question for those social media critics. If you were in the same circumstance with releasing news of a single rare Butterfly, only to find the next day there was a small colony, how do you think you could have handled it better?
Map: Male Individual A. Had we not circulated the news of a lone Map that first evening, we would widely have been condemned as suppressors (7 Aug)
A number of local Butterfly fans & transect counters visited the site on the next day and had the chance to enjoy the Butterflies. It is true that a small number of local Birders who also watch Butterflies also got to see them. This is hardly, the whole of the Dorset Birding community that has been claimed & condemned on one social media site. The reality is that a rarity that needs to be kept quiet for access problems or a rare breeding species, is likely to attract a number of trustworthy locals who would be discrete about the site. It is also likely that if this had happened near to where this complaining individual lives, then the chances are that he might get a private invite, whereas I (as a non local) wouldn't. It would then be his decision whether to maintain the high principals he has used to condemn us or to quietly pop along for a look. I wonder what he would do under the circumstances.
Map: Female Individual B. The game changer as this confirmed there was more than one on site (8 Aug)
There have also been some disgraceful & irresponsible comments on social media trying to tell people the location of the site, after the request to keep the site quiet for the protection of the Maps. Sad to say this has been by some well known birdwatchers: do you think it would be right to have made the same comments, if this was the first UK breeding pair of say Pallid Harriers? I wonder if these individuals will have the sense not to speculate on social media about the site of the next sensitive breeding species that is requested to be kept quiet?
Map: Male Individual J. The 10th individual (8 Aug)
By the end of the third day, the feeling was the Maps were most likely of a wild origin & had established themselves at the site since the arrival of a pregnant female the previous Autumn. This led to a request to shutdown all news on the site to give the Maps the best chance of establishing themselves, whilst discussions with local landowners started. Informal voluntary wardening on site commenced to try minimising the impacts to the site & to ensure that the landowner wouldn't be upset by the impact of the small number of visitors. This wardening was also to monitor the numbers of Maps involved & to start recording their behaviour. I will publish some of these observations in a future post in the near future.

Over the previous week the numbers of Maps quickly reduced, due to dispersal, natural predation & sadly the presence of 3 individuals on site. In the middle of last week, there was a confirmed commercial collector identified on site. Additionally, there was a suspected private collector who was seen furling up a net. I would be surprised if they were not responsible for the disappearance of some individuals from the site. These were some of the risks we were seeking to minimise to this potential colony.

If anybody feels that they wish to have complain about the site not being made public, then feel free to have a go at the next set of adults you see collecting Butterflies in the future without a good reason: sadly this still occurs as we experienced on site. I appreciate there might be good reason why a genuine entomologist might have a net in the field. But these were unscrupulous individuals who don't seem to care if they wipe out a group of Butterflies or Moths: as long as they get some nice dead specimens for their collection or to sell on. By the way, don't bother trying to post comments to this blog, trying to justify why you believe this is OK: they won't be published. I've seen enough crap on social media in recent months trying to justify collecting. I don't have a problem with collecting by a respectable scientific organisation like the Natural History Museum. But I do have a problem with irresponsible collecting of species like Butterflies or Moths for private collections or for sale. Collecting is especially pointless when the species is readily identifiable in the field or from photos & so use of a net is not needed to confirm the identification. It is just a selfish collecting obsession without any care for the species being collected. No different to the ongoing threat to big game animals being shot in the wild by wealthy hunters for their obsession & ego.
Map: Male Individual K. Many thanks to Nick Urch for allowing me to publish his image with whom the copyright remains (8 Aug 14)
But over the last week or so, it has definitely been a High given the general feeling that we were probably dealing with a small fledgling wild colony. But a Low, that we have been visited by Butterfly collectors, which was followed by a deeper Low. A trustworthy source in one of the leading wildlife organisations has recently been contacted by an unnamed individual, who for the purposes of this blog I will call Fred Bloggs (I don't know & do not want to know Fred's real identity). The source believes this is genuine. Fred has admitted to an accidental release of a number of Maps at the site on the 6 August (the day before the first one was found). Frankly, I have heard his explanation of how this release occurred & believe the story as told is about as factual as the ridiculous Hollywood film The Great Escape to the real Great Escape story from the German PoW camp, Stalag Luft 3. But I do believe it is a cover story, given Fred may well have committed an offense under the Wildlife & Countryside Act by releasing an illegal alien species into the UK countryside. I also do not believe we will get the true story from Fred. But personally I find it hard to use the phrase accidental in the story, as I do not think it stacks up with the photographic evidence of pristine Maps, 3 days on from the accidental release date. But I will not be commenting further in public or private on Fred's story.
Map: Male Individual F. (8 Aug 14). The accidental release story was they all hatched within a few hours & the accidental escape happened immediately afterwards. Yet somehow this individual managed to get this tatty within 2 days of escaping. In comparison, all the above upper wing photos were taken on the same day & look in good condition & all the following photos were taken one day later (on the 9 August)
So now it appears the most likely explanation is the Maps were released. This came as we were starting to get some interesting discussions going about how it might be possible to help protect this colony going forward. Up to that point, the general feeling from visitors in the know, was these were likely to be a genuine arrival of a pregnant female last Autumn. Circumstantial evidence to support this included, the movement of continental Swallowtails at the time (that led to the St Aldhelms & Sussex sightings this year) & Long-tailed Blues appearing in Kent & Sussex. There still seems to be some sympathy for this theory & the presence of the collectors probably strengthened that feeling. Whilst Maps are apparently not a migratory species, they are steadily pushing North in the same way that the Speckled Wood & other species are also extending their range North.
Continental Swallowtail: St Aldhelms (2 July 14). Unlike the release story broke, the most likely opinion was a pregnant female arrived in Autumn 13, about the same time as a Swallowtail reached St Aldhelms  
Not knowing Fred, I having to trust this isn't a hoax story of any kind, given the confirmation of a release has seriously prejudiced any attempts for protection going forward. I know hoax stories like this occurs from time to time in the birdwatching world, where one or two well known extreme individuals have put out stories they have made up, purely to seek attention for themselves or to try to discredit a major rarity that they have missed. Invariably the real truth comes out and usually backfiring & discredits the individual who made up the story. However, I understand that this would be a less likely event in the Butterfly world.
Map: Male Individual L. Many thanks to Peter Moore for allowing me to republish his image with whom the copyright remains (9 Aug 14). The photo can also be viewed on Peter's blog
Map: Male Individual M. One of the individuals seen for the first time on the 9 August. This has clearly been in the wars, but checking the wing markings, it does not match to any of the other specimens
Map: Female Individual N. Note, the wide body & hint of a double orange wing bar. Many thanks to Brett Spencer for allowing me to republish his image from the Brett Spencer's twitter feed (copyright for the photo remains with Brett)
I guess Fred should be commended for coming forward & admitting to having been involved. However, I also think Fred should have though about the problems he had created by this release. Releases like this are illegal under the W&C Act. If it had been accidental, then a quick disclosure should have occurred: which might have resulted in different actions being considered.

It would also have significantly reduced the amount of time a handful of locals have had spent on site trying to look after them. I spent 65 hrs of voluntary wardening over 10 days and others also spent a fair bit of time on site. Releases like this are also irresponsible as they will also mask & taint any real arrivals in the future. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all the locals who have gone out of their way over the last couple of weeks to help keep an eye on these interesting Butterflies.
Map: Male Individual O. One of the individuals seen for the first time on the 9 August. Note, the unique NU white marking near the trailing edge of the top right forewing & the minor nick on the edge of the left hind wing.This does look in good condition considering it has been flying for 3 days
Interestingly, I have been looking at photos taken on the 9 August. So far photo analysis has indicated that only 2 of the individuals seen on the 8 August were still around on the 9th. But another 5 new individuals were seen in the same area. This either suggests we missed quite a few the previous day or there might be other reasons why we were seeing new individuals. I'm still thinking about the significance of this high percentage of new individuals.
Map: Male Individual P. One of the individuals seen for the first time on the 9 August. Note, the wear on the right fore wingtip
Back to the High of the 10 days or so, until the release story appeared, I have met a number of incredibly knowledgeable Butterfly guys on site. I'm not going to name names to avoid any petty finger pointed, of why were they there etc. But it's been a real privilege to spend time with these guys & I've learnt a huge amount about Butterfly ecology, habits & conservation issues from these guys. So however, these Maps arrived at the site, this is undoubtedly a great High to finish on.

Timing the publication of this news about this release was a tricky decision. The main reason for going public now is to make it clear, this was a most likely a release & hopefully any eggs or larva planned to be collected in the near future will be of no commercial value now.

A final update, the last adult was seen flying on the 17 August, despite being looked for daily since. I have currently identified 16 individuals up to the end of the 9 August & believe that total will rise I have time to look at additional photos.