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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

MUIRHEAD`S MYSTERIES: The Camberwell Beauty in North-West England- an historical account

I have been inspired to do some research into the history of the Camberwell Beauty (Nymphalis antiopa)  butterfly in counties in North-west England by Jon`s piece in Animals and Men #53 (May 2015) `The Changing Face of the Species List of British Lepidoptera`. Fortunately there must have been some keen lepidopterists in Cheshire and neighbouring counties  since the mid 1800s because records of this butterfly, although it is very rare, are well kept.

According to the Butterflies and Moths of Cheshire,Flintshire etc by S.Gordon Smith (1) (1948) (which I`ve failed to find for sale online) the Camberwell Beauty was “ a great rarity.” Below is a list of records and locations in date order:

Macclesfield Forest (see link below) 1858.

Altrincham (now Greater Manchester)  1872

Delamere   1872 (Cheshire)

Hale            1917 (Greater Manchester)

Cuddington    1941 (Cheshire)

Prenton          1947 ( Merseyside)

This is just an abbreviation of a longer list, though not much longer. In November`s  1947`s `Cheshire Life` Norman F.Ellison ,who  had a radio show as well as being a writer, wrote in his monthly `A Naturalist`s Notebook` page:

“ Two rarities were sent to me: a Camberwell Beauty, found at Prenton, Birkenhead and a Clifden Nonpareil, found at Bromborough three weeks later. In the past hundred years there have been only eleven records for Cheshire…Both specimens found there way into the magnificent collection of Lepidoptera formed by Mr S Gordon Smith …of Chester…The breeding of larvae has always been one of Mr Smith`s chief interests,and he knows the problems of providing suitable food-plants for maybe twenty different species in his “larvatorium”. Once he bred out 14,000 Small Tortoiseshells in one year without producing a single striking variety, but he successfully reared the Early Thorn through fourteen generations to show the extraordinary colour changes through in-breeding. The first and last generations are so dissimilar in colour and markings, it is difficult to realise that all belong to the same species. The collection is particularly rich in varieties, and several new ones have been named by him. He has printed privately two books, Records and Observations, 1918-21, and Light Records , 1919-23. (2)

The above mentioned book ref (1) also mentions a Long-tailed blue recorded at Haswall in 1887.

This link here:  shows a photo of the Macclesfield Camberwell Beauty mentioned above in 1858. http://www.record-lrc.co.uk/(S(jgtnqbzaggecwx3uiiimqaib))/forum/viewtopic.php?f=23&t=1221  Someone called Hugh Harrison caught it in September 1858.

The May 1948 issue of `Cheshire Life` followed up the previous November`s issue with the following: “It (the Camberwell Beauty mentioned 6 months before) was certainly not in my mind on the 16th April, when my wife and I were walking on the 16th April (1948) over Thurstaston Hill. A warm but hazy afternoon with the wind from the SE. Suddenly she drew my attention to what at first I had taken to be a scrap of paper blown by the wind…I saw that it was a large butterfly or moth of some kind. Carefully I stalked it and as I came nearer, my suspicion became reality – it was a Camberwell Beauty. “ (3)

Barry T.Shaw in The Butterflies of Cheshire (1998?) says the following about the Camberwell Beauty: “ This immigrant from Northern Europe was recorded by Day ( G.O. Day  A list of Lepidoptera found in the counties of Cheshire,Flintshire,Denbighshire, Carnarvonshire,and Anglesea 1903) as a “ great rarity” and this statement is just as relevant today. In most years a few individuals reach eastern Britain probably from Scandinavia, but it is only during the sporadic “invasion” years – notably 1872, 1947,1976 and 1995 – that a small number disperse as far as Cheshire. Reports in other years are often suspected of being released insects from captivity rather than migrants, although this is difficult to confirm. Unfortunately, there are breeders who release these butterflies into the wild and this only hampers the monitoring of any genuine migration. “ (4). Shaw goes on to mention an individual found in Macclesfield on April 26th 1996 which was probably an individual which had “ successfully hibernated” (5) which is interesting!

This site : http://www.cheshire-butterflies.co.uk/species/speciesdetails/ches/camberwellbeauty.htm  mentions 2006 as another year when Camberwell Beauties reached Cheshire.


  1. S.Gordon Smith Butterflies and Moths of Cheshire,Flintshire,etc 1948
  2. Norman F.Ellison. A Naturalist`s Notebook November 1947  Cheshire Life p.14
  3. Norman F.Ellison. A Naturalist`s Notebook. May 1948 Cheshire Life p. 11
  4. Barry T Shaw  The Butterflies of Cheshire ( 1998?) p. 46
  5. ibid p. 46

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