The author who helped save county’s butterflies

Doug Goddard with BB's Butterflies book.
Doug Goddard with BB's Butterflies book.

In the coldness of January, the bright and beautiful summertime sight of butterflies may be furthest from everyone’s minds.

But for one Northamptonshire man, the late Denys Watkins-Pitchford – also known as BB – the humble butterfly was never far from his thoughts.

BB’s name is still remembered across the world for his work as an author and illustrator. He penned and illustrated 60 of his own books, 30 of which were children’s stories.

Yet his love of nature did not stop at simply drawing natural images. He was also noted for his efforts in conservation and it is this aspect of his work which has been remembered in the latest book compiled by Bryan Holden.

Bryan, who lives in Solihull, is secretary of the BB Society and his latest work is entitled BB’s Butterflies. It brings together articles, drawings and photos about and by BB, with contributions from some of the country’s leading naturalists.

For much of his life, the Lamport-born BB lived in Sudborough, close to Fermyn Woods. And when it came to conservation, one of the projects closest to his heart was saving the purple emperor butterfly.

As Badger Walker recalls in the book: “He [BB] was a man of many and varied enthusiasms. One of the greatest was his passion for the purple emperor butterfly, whose welfare had occupied much of his life. Faced with reports of ever-dwindling numbers, he had decided that the beautiful creature would eventually be wiped out unless outside help was given to safeguarding its food plant, and also to combat predations of its eggs and larvae. To this end he embarked upon a one-man mission to save the species from extinction.”

Then followed a project launched by BB in his own garden, in which he planted sallow bushes – the purple emperor’s food plant – and started caring for butterfly eggs reared inside cages.

The value of BB’s contribution to Fermyn Woods’ population of purple emperor butterflies is now widely celebrated.

One of the book’s contributors, Doug Goddard from Westone, Northampton, is Northamptonshire’s butterfly recorder.

He said: “The main species BB is widely known for is the purple emperor, which he had a life-long ambition to reintroduce into the Northamptonshire woodlands.

“He collected eggs, reared them and released them into the forest near Sudborough.

“The wood is Fermyn Woods, near Brigstock, and now people come from all over the country [to see butterflies there].

“However much is down to BB I don’t know but he certainly deserves some credit.”

Doug was given the task of writing a chapter on BB’s butterflies, detailing what has happened to Northamptonshire’s butterflies since the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, when BB carried out much of his conservation work.

Doug said: “Things have changed since BB’s time. He was around when the decline of butterflies began to be noticed, he was one of the first people to notice this. He noted that some species that were common had started to disappear and he blamed spray and farming methods.

“Now we have got projects to help more butterflies in the county. There is a project to increase numbers of wood whites.”

He continued: “There isn’t as much open countryside as there used to be, the areas where we found butterflies have become scarcer but one thing that has helped butterflies in this part of the world is climate change. There has been a natural expansion of the silver washed fritillary, which disappeared in the 1960s.”

Bryan spent six months going through the writings of BB and gathering contributions from butterfly experts and those who had memories of meeting BB and witnessing his passion for nature.

He has also included extracts and photos which had rarely been seen before.

He said: “There are photos in there of BB’s actual butterfly net, and the stick he used to pull the bushes back as he looked for eggs. There is also a message from BB (written to Badger) saying ‘gone to Emperor Ride,’ which was a ride in the woods where you were most likely to find the eggs.

“There is lots in there to open up one’s eyes to the psyche of the man. With BB’s writings you feel that you have walked with him.”

An extract...

Badger Walker wrote: “BB lived life to the full. Despite many personal setbacks, family tragedies and debilitating illnesses, he never lost his focus and enthusiasm for his life-long interests.

“A typical instance of his positive attitude was to be seen when I visited him in Churchill Hospital, Oxford, where, in his 85th year, he was undergoing weekly dialysis.

“‘Go and see if you can find iris in Bernwood,’ he instructed me. ‘I’m sure it’s a likely place, and if you get lucky I’ll write an article about it.’

“I drove out to the woodland, parked the car in a layby and entered the wood. I met some lads with a net; they said they’d not had a single sighting. Even so, I pressed on, feeling I couldn’t go back to the hospital until I’d given it a good ‘go’.

“After about an hour of searching, I went back to the layby and was about to drive off when I saw a female iris settle in the gutter. I knelt down to get a better look. The butterfly took wing, circled around and then landed on my hand. I called to the lads sitting on the verge. They came running but the butterfly took off and flew back to the wood.

“When I got back to the hospital and reported to BB, his eyes brightened. ‘I knew you’d find one, Badger’ he chortled. ‘I just had a feeling.”’

Fact file

Denys Watkins-Pitchford was born in Lamport in 1905.

He attended Northampton School of Art and the Royal College of Art. He was assistant art master at Rugby School for 15 years, before concentrating on writing.

He wrote and illustrated 60 of his own books, 30 of which are children’s stories.

In 1989, BB was made an MBE for his contribution to literature and conservation.

A limited print run of 950 editions of BB’s Butterflies has been completed and these are available at £40 each, plus £5 for post and packing. These and other publications about BB are available from or by ringing 0121 7041002.