A chrysalis that looks as if it is an alien spaceship. A peacock butterfly hissing like a snake to frighten a hungry mouse. An astonishingly hirsute mountain ringlet, scurrying through the grass at 2,000ft in the Scottish Highlands. Silver-washed fritillaries duelling high in the sunlit ride of an English woodland.
Extraordinary footage shot by the BBC’s natural history unit over the past 18 months will this week show our native butterflies in a new and surprising light. Butterflies: A Very British Obsession documents some of the eccentric collectors, conservationists and artists who have been inspired by the 59 species of butterfly found in the United Kingdom. But the real stars are, of course, the insects, here shown in slow motion and time-lapse photography as they are transformed from caterpillars smaller than a pin-head into garish and sometimes aggressive butterflies.
The film was a labour of love for cameraman Mark Payne-Gill, whose bedroom as a boy resounded to the munch of the caterpillars he collected. A wildlife cameraman for 20 years, Payne-Gill finally returned to his obsession in the summer of 2009, racing between meadows and mountains to track down our rarest butterflies.
Getting close to butterflies is hard, particularly with elusive treetop species such as the purple emperor. Payne-Gill enlisted the help of the National Trust’s nature conservation adviser Matthew Oates, a great emperor aficionado, who is filmed laying foul-smelling baits – from pickled mudfish to shito, a Ghanaian fish paste – with Neil Hulme of Butterfly Conservation. Tempted from the treetops by this fishy stench, the insect’s iridescent purple hue was captured on film by the cameraman, who shows the majesty of its flight, not unlike that of a partridge.
Payne-Gill was forced to abandon the latest HD digital cameras for the project because they do not shoot slowly enough. Instead, he dug out his old film camera and shot 150 frames a second, which slowed the action down six times – producing stunning images of butterflies flapping like 19th-century birdmen. As well as old technology, Payne-Gill called upon his boyhood skills, breeding orange tip butterflies so he could film their life cycle in a stunning close-up studio sequence.
At first, the tiny caterpillar is bright ginger, displaying its toxicity. After three weeks of bingeing, it is 800 times heavier, and Payne-Gill captures the shock and awe of a fully-grown caterpillar stomping past a small one. It overwinters in a chrysalis that is covered in snow and ice before bright orange wings slowly show through its alien-like pod. When the male butterfly finally emerges, it looks as bedraggled as a dog after a swim until it plumps up, smooths out its wings and flies off.
While the film is a celebration of the wonder of our ordinary butterflies, its narrator, Imelda Staunton, also points out that more than half our native species are in decline and several are on the brink of extinction. Butterflies can only be preserved if we protect caterpillars’ foodplants from industrial agriculture and overgrown woodlands. Climate change may be an opportunity for many species to expand north through Britain but they are hampered by fragmented habitat. Confined to isolated reserves, rare species can no longer move easily across our intensively farmed countryside.
Never underestimate a butterfly, though, and the documentary also charts the remarkable journey of the painted lady butterfly to Britain from the deserts of Morocco. Before it crosses mountains, oceans and rivers of cars, the painted lady must first avoid a large green frog. As the film shows with a leap, a flutter and a sickening crunch, sometimes the frog wins.
Natural World: Butterflies – A Very British Obsession is on Friday on BBC2, 8pm. Patrick Barkham’s The Butterfly Isles is published by Granta